A System for Remembering What You Read

One year I read 161 books cover-to-cover. And that doesn’t include the ones that I started to read and put down. In the process, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned that works for non-ficiton books:

  • Learn How to Read a Book.
  • Deciding not to read the book is ok. Not all books deserve to be read.
  • You can read multiple books at the same time as long as they are different generes. You can read a best-selling businesss book and a book about nature.
  • When you lose interest give it 5 more pages. The skim the next chapter. If you’re still not intersted put it down. It’s the authors job to keep your attention.
  • Mark up the book while reading it. Questions. Thoughts. And, more important, connections to other ideas.
  • At the end of each chapter, without looking back, write some notes on the main points/arguments/take-aways. Then look back through the chapter and write down anything you missed.
  • Specifically note anything that was in the chapter that you can apply somewhere else.
  • Try the Blanksheet. It’s the single biggest change you can make to increase retention.
  • When you’re done with the book, take out a blank sheet of paper and explain the core ideas or arguments of the book to yourself. Where you have problems, go back and review your notes. This is the Feynman technique.
  • Put the book down for a week.
  • When you pick it back up, reread all of your notes/highlights/marginalia/etc. Time is a good filter — what’s still important? Note this on the inside of the cover with a reference to the page number.
  • Store your blanksheets and core ideas and put them in a binder to review periodically with all the others ones.

One thing that most people don’t appreciate enough is that what you read makes a huge difference in how well you remember things.

We fail to remember a lot of the stuff we read because it’s not building on any existing knowledge. We’re often trying to learn complex things (that change rapidly) without understanding the basic things (which change slowly or not at all). Or, worse still, we’re uncritically letting other people do the thinking for us. This is the adult equivalent of regurgitating the definition of a boldface word in our high school textbook. There is a difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something and if you don’t know where you stand on a subject you’re going to take unwarranted risks.

Acquiring Wisdom

A better approach is to build a latticework of mental models. That is, acquire core multi-disciplinary knowledge and use that as your foundation. This is the best investment because this stuff doesn’t change, or if it does, it changes really slowly. This knowledge becomes your foundation. This is what you build on. So when you read and connect things to the core knowledge, not only do you have a better idea of how things fit together, but you also strengthen those connections in your head.

If you’re looking to acquire worldly wisdom, time is your best filter. It makes sense to focus on learning the core ideas over multiple disciplines. These remain constant. And when you have a solid foundation, it’s easier to build upon because you connect what you’re learning to that (now very solid) foundation.