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 (including my dad, who we call a Walking Wikipedia) 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? How can you be one of those who remember what they read?

Get more out of books

Once you’re out of school, life doesn’t come with a required reading list. So let’s start with something that may seem obvious but is worth explicitly stating: if you want to better remember insights from the books you read, it will be much easier if you enjoy the topic in the first place.

Now that this is out of the way, here’s the key shift you need to make: all you need to do is to increase context.

Large brain networks are involved in encoding memories, but researchers found that the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus play key roles in context-dependent memory. This type of memory leads to better recall when you find yourself in similar situations, which is exactly what you want to get out of books.

Remember what you read – The Contextual Brain

The eight strategies below are designed to help you make what you read as contextual as possible. They can apply to any kind of book: fiction or nonfiction, classic or bestseller, it doesn’t matter. In my opinion they are a bit too involved for day-to-day reading such as blog posts, but could technically apply them to any kind of content you want to remember better.

1. Context matching

When picking 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. In a creative rut? Read On Writing by Stephen King. Trying to be more productive at work? Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Traveling? Find a novel or a collection of essays by a local author. Matching the topic of the book to your current situation is an easy way to automatically increase context.

2. Deep focus

Even if the subject matter of the book is not particularly dense or complex, try to give it your undivided attention so your brain can better form connections. This means getting rid of distractions: no email, no notifications. Turn off your phone and leave it in another room. If at work, go find a place away from your desk. Of course, that’s not always possible, but if you can create that dedicated space in your schedule, you will remember more of the books you read.

3. Active reading

Why do we still remember most of the stories 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. Actively engaging with the content forces you to place it in lots of different contexts, which will make it easier to recall in the future.

4. Note making

Research shows that capturing notes has lots of benefits in and for itself. One of them is to help you better remember what you read. You could write notes in the margins, on a separate note-book, on post-it notes—it doesn’t really matter, the act of adding context through these notes is what helps form new pathways in the brain and store the information better in your long-term memory. This is called the Generation Effect.

5. Mental mapping

As we’ve seen, contextual information is better remembered than information that’s studied in isolation. A great way to increase context is to connect the dots between the book you’re currently reading and other books you have read in the past. Create your own mental atlas. 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. If you took notes in the margins, this is a good time to transfer your key insights in your note-taking app. A good question to ask yourself is: how would I describe this book to a friend? In the future, it will be easier to remember the content when you find yourself in that specific context.

7. Instant practice

Applying what you’ve learned in practical contexts 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 ensure you actually understood and now remember what you read.

8. Related knowledge

Books do not exist in a vacuum. A great way to increase context is to literally increase the context you have around the topics you are studying. You could read a biography of the author, a history book about their era, or books about the same topic. Exploring a theme from different angles and through the eyes of different authors is a great way to consider different ways of thinking and to form your own informed opinion.

When you optimize for context, reading has compounding effects. You will progressively build your own unique knowledge, with interesting connections and insights.

And if you have finished a truly good book, feel free to re-read it! 

“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,” Charles Spurgeon explained in one of his lectures.

Or, as Anne Fadiman so beautifully put it: “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.”

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.

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