How to better remember what you read

While most people—including scientists—agree on the benefits of reading books, not everyone seems to have been made equal when it comes to remembering their content. Some people are an endless source of insights, recalling every single detail long after they’re finished reading. Others, not so much. What’s going on here? And how can you better remember what you read?

First, there is no magical hack to become a better reader. Sure, there are cool apps that give you access to book summaries, and fancy products or tools which promise to increase retention. But all of these miss the point: when it comes to reading, quality trumps quantity. It’s not really about how many books you read, but how you read them.

“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”

Robertson Davies, Novelist and Professor.

Of course, you could read books just because it’s fun—and you should! But if that’s something you spend a lot of time on, or are planning to spend more time doing, it’s a good idea to study a few strategies that will help you get the most of every book you read.

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Get more out of books

The eight strategies we will go through apply to any kind of book: fiction or nonfiction, classic or bestseller, it doesn’t matter. Life doesn’t come with a required reading list. But if you want to better remember insights from the books you read, it will be easier with topics you find relevant and interesting in the first place.

  1. Context matching. In order to pick your next book, ask yourself what would be relevant to you right now. You could read a book about a challenge you’re facing or a project you’re working on. Writing something? Read On Writing by Stephen King. Trying to be more productive at work? Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Travelling? Find a novel or a collection of essays by a local author. It will be much easier to remember the content of a book if it truly resonates by matching its topic to your current situation and environment.
  2. Deep focus. Even if the subject matter of the book is not particularly dense or complex, you should try to give it your undivided attention. This means getting rid of distractions: no email, no notifications. Ideally, turn off your phone and leave it in another room. If at work, just go find a place away from your desk. Of course, that’s not always possible, but if you can create that dedicated time in your schedule for deep reading, you will remember more of the books you read.
  3. Active reading. Why do we still remember most of the stories of the books we studied in school? Because we were actively engaged in the process. We had to discuss them with classmates, write about them, maybe even act out some scenes. Active reading means critically engaging with the content and having the determination to understand it, and has been shown to increase retention.
  4. Note taking. Science shows that taking notes has lots of benefits in and for itself. One of them is to help you better remember the stuff you read. You could take notes in the margins, on a separate note-book, on post-it notes—it doesn’t really matter, the act of taking notes is what helps form new pathways in the brain and store the information better in your long-term memory. It’s called the Generation Effect.
  5. Mental mapping. To take things further, try to connect the dots between the book you’re currently reading and other concepts or books you have read in the past. Create your own knowledge tree inside your brain. For example, some information about how the mind works in normal conditions versus under the influence of psychedelics in How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan reminded me of concepts I discovered in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
  6. Personal summary. Once you’re done reading the book, take a few minutes to write a short summary, including the main ideas. A good question to ask yourself is: how would I describe this book to a friend? This is great both for retention and for recall. In the future, you may be able to remember most of the book just by re-reading your own personal summary.
  7. Instant practice. Applying what you’ve learned in a real-world scenario is one of the most efficient ways to solidify the information inside your memory. What did you read that you could apply right now, either at work or in your daily life? Even better: is there anyone who could benefit from what you just learned? If so, grab them and explain what you’ve learned. It’s a powerful exercise that will force you to rephrase the content, explain any uncommon concepts, and more importantly, ensure you actually understood what you read.
  8. Compound knowledge. Books do not exist in a vacuum. If practiced with purpose, reading creates effective increments of knowledge. The more you read, the better you will become at it, and the more you will learn. If you’re interested in a topic, think about how you can build your own unique knowledge. You could read a biography of the author, a history book about their era, or books from other authors about the same topic. Exploring a theme from different angles and through the eyes of different authors is a great way to learn and form your own opinion.

And if you have finished a truly good book, feel free to re-read it! As Anne Fadiman wrote in Rereadings: “The reader who plucks a book from her shelf only once is as deprived as the listener who, after attending a single performance of a Beethoven symphony, never hears it again.” Plus, repetition is important for building long-term memories.

I have a special shelf at home for these treasured books I love coming back to. Some of them are novels, others are nonfiction. Some are fairly recent, others were written a very long time ago. Every time I open one of them, it’s a completely new experience. Because I’m a different person, in a different situation, and I’m ready to form new connections and ask new questions.

“Master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and reread them. Digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading.”

Charles H. Spurgeon in Lectures to My Students.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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