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It happens all the time. You read an amazing book, one so packed with wisdom that you think it’s going to change your life forever. Then…it doesn’t. Why? Because when you’re finally in a situation where you could use its insights, you’ve completely forgotten them. Time is our most valuable resource, so we shouldn’t waste it. The investment we make in reading should have a positive, lasting impact on our lives.
No idea could be further from the truth.
Learning means being able to use new information. The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn facts and concepts through reflecting on experience—our own or others’. If you read something and you don’t make time to think about what you’ve read, you won’t be able to use any of the wisdom you’ve been exposed to.
One of the reasons that we read books is because they offer a rich tapestry of details, allowing us to see the world of the author and go on their journey with them. Our brains can learn not only the author’s ideas but also when their conclusions about how to live are likely to work and when they are likely to fail (thanks to the vast amount of details that authors share about their experiences and thought processes).
But if you only remember six things after reading this article, it should be the following truths about reading:
There are multiple strategies for getting more out of what you read. You don’t need to use all these strategies for every book. Using just a couple of them, whether you’re trying to learn a new philosophy or reading a work of fiction, can help you retain more and make deeper connections.
1) Active reading
2) Remembering what you read
3) Now what?
Now, if you’re only reading for fun, or if you don’t want to remember what you read, this article doesn’t apply. Sometimes reading is entertainment, and that’s wonderful. But if you want to get some valuable knowledge out of a book, the first step to getting more out of what you read is being active. So what is active reading?
Active reading is thoughtfully engaging with a book at all steps in the reading process. From deciding to read right through to reflection afterwards, you have a plan for how you are going to ingest and learn what’s in the book.
Each time we pick up a book, the content has to compete with what we already think we know. Making room for the book, and the potential wisdom it contains, requires you to question and reflect as you read.
For example, you might ask yourself:
Active reading helps you make connections within your latticework of mental models. Connections help retention.
Your first goal when reading is to not be a passive consumer of information. You want to get better, learn something, and develop your critical thinking skills. If you had a good teacher in school, you will have already seen this in action.
To get the most out of each book we read, it is vital we know how to record, reflect on, and put into action our conclusions.
A lot of success in reading boils down to preparation. What you do before you read matters more than you think. Here are five strategies to help you plan and get in the active reading frame of mind.
There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don’t have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. This isn’t school and there are no required reading lists. In fact, there’s an advantage to be gained from reading things other people are not reading, because you will gain knowledge and insights that not everyone else has. Focus on some combination of books that: 1) stand the test of time; 2) pique your interest; or 3) challenge you.
The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.
A good place to start getting context is by doing some preliminary research on the book. Some books have a richer meaning once we know a bit about the life of the author and the place and time in which the novel was set.
For older books, try to understand the historical context. For books written in an unfamiliar country, try to understand the cultural context.
What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don’t know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business?
You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. If you don’t read with intention, what you read will never stick.
Periodically ask yourself questions like: What can I learn from this story? What in this book parallels or pertains to my own challenges? What are the differences? How might I apply some of the insights I’m picking up?
Before starting to read a book (particularly nonfiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside the jacket to get an idea of the subject matter. Use this information to situate your expectations and refine what you are looking for as you read.
The bibliography can also indicate the tone and scope of a book. Authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you’ve read the book, peruse the bibliography again and make a note of any books you want to read next.
Although it’s not always practical, matching books to our location and circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance as they become part of an experience rather than just supplementing it.
When choosing books, take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome any current challenges or give you a fresh perspective. Whatever your state of affairs, someone has been in the same place. Someone has felt the same feelings and thought the same thoughts and written about it.
Now that you’re actively reading, you’re engaging on a deeper level with the book. You are making connections to your own life, seeing new opportunities and possibilities. The next step is making sure you remember what’s important. Even the most diligent of us get caught up in the busyness of life, and we thus lose those still-fragile connections we make while reading. But we can help with that.
You’ll remember more of what you read if you do the following five things while you’re reading.
Making notes is an important foundation for reflecting and integrating what you read into your mind.
The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. While there are hundreds of systems on the internet, you need to take one of them and adapt it until you have your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them.
Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex.
If you’re struggling to stay focused on a particularly difficult or lengthy book, decide to read a mere 25 pages of it a day. It takes only a few minutes to nibble away at a challenging text. Completing a long book in this manner might take months, but at least you will have read it without getting overwhelmed .
Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred—no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read and you have the means to do so, forget about keeping books pristine.
Go crazy with marginalia. The more you write, the more active your mind will be while reading. If you can’t mark up the book, do it on paper and note the page numbers.
Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages, and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author(s).
Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.
Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible by connecting it to other ideas already in your brain.
Another way of building links is to hang everything on a latticework of mental models. Having a framework of deliberately constructed concepts enables us to better understand and synthesize books by allowing us to make connections to what we already know. Knowledge sticks in our memories easier if it attaches to something we already understand.
When it comes to reading, you don’t need to finish what you start. As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.
As Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote, “One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.” Life is much too short to finish a bad book. You need to be ruthless and heartless. Don’t let sunk costs guilt you into wasting your time.
Author and librarian Nancy Pearl advocates the “Rule of 50.” This entails reading the first 50 pages of a book and then deciding if it is worth finishing. The Rule of 50 has an interesting feature: once you are over the age of 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages. Pearl writes:
“When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book. When you turn 100, you are authorized to judge a book by its cover.”
So you’ve finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don’t just go away with a vague sense of “Oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.
Reading alone is not enough. We have to contextualize the knowledge. When does it work? When doesn’t it work? Where can I apply it? What are the key variables? The list goes on. If you can take something you’ve read and apply it immediately, it will reinforce the learning and add context and meaning.
Another way to reinforce the learning is to apply the Feynman technique, named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are 4 simple steps: choose a concept, teach it to someone unfamiliar with the subject, identify gaps in your understanding and go back to the source material, and review and simplify.
There are endless ways of organizing your notes—by book, by author, by topic, by the time of reading. It doesn’t matter which system you use as long as you will be able to find the notes in the future.
Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource that can be consulted whenever you need an idea, want inspiration, or want to confirm a thought. Over the years, you will build up a bank of wisdom to refer to in times of crisis, uncertainty, or need. It is hard to convey quite how valuable this can prove to be.
Schedule time to read and review these notes.
“Read a lot. Expect something big, something exalting or deepening from a book. No book is worth reading that isn’t worth rereading.” —Susan Sontag
Skim a lot of books. Read a few. Immediately re-read the best ones twice. While rereading can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.
“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison
What you read can give you access to untold knowledge. But how you read changes the trajectory of your life.
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