To “know things” is one reason many of us read books, and necessary if you want to pass tests. So how can you retain more information when you read books?
This is particularly useful with books which are scientific in nature. I make an effort to read 100+ books per year, most of them serving as research for this blog. If I could not draw upon them, my time spent reading would be far less valuable.
These tricks don’t just work for scientific books, though. I’m also a big fan of fantasy/sci-fi and I like to be able to discuss good prose in casual conversation with other nerds. This means being able to recall specific examples from stories I’ve read, instead of letting all the fantasy books run together into one endless parade of “heroes’ journeys.”
The point is, remembering information from what you read is a skill which can be built. Here are the tricks you can use to remember more information when you read books:
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1. Highlight Facts, Not Conclusions
I frequently do my reading on the Kindle. I know it’s not for everybody, but one of the benefits it has is that it makes highlighting easy. The Kindle will also tell you what other people are highlighting frequently.
I’ve noticed a trend that most people highlight conclusions in self-help/science/research books. They go for the pithy quote at the beginning or the end of the chapter. After all, these quotations seem to sum up the entire chapter in a nice little concise way.
Unfortunately, pithy conclusions also tend to miss a lot of the context. When you read that quotation later, will you really remember all the nuance? I took years of bad notes before I realized that my highlights were useless later because I was highlighting conclusions. Conclusions are an author’s interpretation of the facts, which can obscure the truth.
If you highlight facts instead, such as primary sources or cited research, you’ll have more useful information to use later. Instead of the book author’s interpretation and analysis, you’ll have the facts you need to make your own case later on.
When reading novels, notes are more significant than highlights. Again, the tendency is to highlight pithy quotes from the protagonist. But these amusing bits of prose are unlikely to be useful later. To read stories well, it is better to write your own commentary on how a particular passage made you feel, what the motifs/themes are, what you enjoyed about the prose, and other such observations.
In either case, think about your future self: how will (s)he use this information?
2. Revisit and Organize Your Notes
There’s a tendency to think of organization as a chore. If a robot could do it for us, we’d probably let it. Yet this would be a terrible idea for learning.
The reason is that the actual process of organization is one which solidifies learning. This is why I’ve recommended making your own flashcards and taking good notes in lectures. When use these techniques to revisit the information, you are performing an act of metacognition. You’re taking an idea and trying to fit it into a larger framework of knowledge. The quality of this internal mental framework is the key to how well you remember information.
When you organize the notes you took, aim to connect the ideas together. Again, think about how you’ll want to use the information in the future.
When I write on this blog I need to be able to find citations to support particular ideas. So after I finish each book, I go to my kindle highlights online and copy them into Evernote using Bookcision. Frequently I will combine several highlights together into a single note and attach a handful of relevant tags. The idea is to give myself easy access, later on, to prepackaged chunks in support of a point I might want to make.
With novels, this organizational period is the time to consider how the book was similar or different to others. Did the author use some familiar writing structure? A trope within his field? What archetype was followed? I frequently assign ratings to the books I read, from 1-5 stars, and this is a great time to stop and figure out why the book deserved such a rating.
Thinking about these connecting elements lays the groundwork for transferring the knowledge…
3. Use the Knowledge
Whenever I start a new blog post, I begin by looking through my Kindle and Evernote notes. I do both a search on some keywords and a skim of some of the books I think might be relevant. This gives me the opportunity to view the old information in a new context. When I originally made the highlights, I was thinking about the information in a very narrow way. When I read the notes again while thinking about something I want to write, my perspective has shifted and I can imagine the information being applied in a different way.
Here’s an example highlight which I took while reading the book How we Learn:
Quitting before a project is done: not all bad, as an almost done project lingers in memory far longer than one that is completed.
When I first read that, it was just a curiosity. Soon after, I wrote my post about creating the perfect practice session and realized that this quotation suggested that ending practice on a slightly-frustrated note could improve motivation. As I re-read it now, though, I’m thinking about another post I’m planning regarding the effects of failure on learning. It’s the same quotation, but it takes on completely different meanings in my brain based upon what else I’m thinking about.
There are plenty of things that modern schooling gets wrong, but I don’t think the book report is one of them. The infamous “book report” somewhat resembles this 3-step process. When done well, a book report requires taking good notes, organizing them, and coming up with an effective summary of the book.
It’s this sort of using information in different contexts which facilitates transfer. Each time you use the information in a new way, you’re forcing your mind to make new connections. Without going on a neuroscience tangent, the best evidence we have suggests that the act of “remembering” in the brain is based both the quantity and quality of the connections between information. Using information in new ways accomplishes this.
Without writing a book report or a blog post, though, there are still plenty of ways you can use the information. You can surround yourself with other people who are interested in the same sorts of topics (this is why book clubs exist, and I know there are a few people in my life I can always have a good conversation about fantasy/sci-fi writing with). You can also join online forums or other discussions about the subjects. After all, the reason you read the book was to learn something new.
Why not go put it to use? Have a conversation with someone new and discuss what you found interesting.
Putting it All Together
To recap, here’s what my process looks like:
- Highlight and/or take notes in the Kindle
- Rewrite the notes in Evernote & rate the book
- Use my notes to write blog posts or engage in conversations
These steps are pretty simple habits. It might seem like they take some time, but it gets easier the more you do it. Your own precise structure will probably look a bit different based upon how and why you’re reading each book, but this framework should still hold up.