The art of remembering everything you read
When I was a child, I would sometimes wake up in the night with a burning need to go and read a certain line from a book.
The line would be in my mind, word for word, yet I needed to see it on paper. I needed to experience the acute look and feel of it before I could go back to sleep.
That sensation exemplifies the difference between people who enjoy reading and those who do not. Those who do not enjoy it see a book as a one-time thing to either get through out of necessity or for pure fun. Those who do enjoy it understand that a book is a dialogue between the author and the reader. It is a continuous two-way interaction.
As children, we learn the technicalities of how to read. But few (if any) schools teach how to truly benefit from it. We grow up viewing books as something to skim through before a test. Maybe we memorize a few sentences, then forget them straight away. Books become a chore, not an experience.
This is a concept which needs reshaping. Whose idea was it to teach Shakespeare to kids?
Part of enjoying reading is to turn it from a passive to an active skill. This means engaging, remembering and using what you read. To answer some questions, this post is a massive brain dump of my techniques for doing that.
I remember a surprising amount of what I read, even though I get through about 4 books a week. When I use a quote or reference in a piece of writing, I usually have typed it from memory then double-checked the accuracy. Whilst I could not list all the books I have read, name any that I have and I can recall a substantial amount.
Here are some of my thoughts on what makes this possible:
Whilst I do have the ability to stop subvocalizing, I do it when I am reading something complex. Reading aloud, if possible, works well for remembering certain sentences. Sometimes I will listen to the audiobook version after finishing a book to help me remember more.
- Differentiate between facts and concepts.
Concepts tend to be more useful. When I am trying to cement one in my mind, I practice applying it to random things. This is one of the more beneficial things I learned in college. I used to go for walks and ask myself: what is a Marxist reading of sandwiches? A third-wave feminist reading of that car? A post-modern reading of what I am doing now? It was crucial for locking the concepts and perspectives in my mind. Remembering concepts is usually easier than remembering facts.
- The best way to remember something is to teach it.
Upon completing a book, call up a willing participant and tell them about it. If that is not an option, talk to your pets or a rubber duck. This is similar to the Feynman technique, in which you simplify complex topics. Or write about it- Goodreads and Reddit have plenty of places you can do this.
- Read before bed, then review it in the morning.
- For some books, the key is to remember how they make you FEEL.
This is more the case for fiction. It is not always necessary to remember every little detail. Sometimes a general sense is enough.
- Different books require reading in different ways.
Some take me weeks or even months to read in small doses, such as Meditations and Tools of Titans. Others are best suited to a single sitting, such as anything by Jack Kerouac and good fiction in general. As a rule of thumb, books of letters and those split into section are best in a few sittings while relatively short fiction is best in a single sitting.
- Take meticulous notes.
When part of a book stands out to me, I record it in a notebook, then in Evernote. Writing it out twice helps to lock it in my memory. Whilst I like having it in analog form, Evernote is vital for being able to find what I need and draw connections. When I am writing about a topic, I can then search for it and integrate different ideas together. If you would like access to part of my catalog of book notes, this is possible via Patreon. I share links to hundreds of notes with my patrons. The downside is that its very time consuming to do.
- Also, index cards.
I first learned about the system of using index cards to construct a book from Vladimir Nabokov. I have been using this technique for the book I am working on, keeping cards by me as I read and taking notes. Being able to shuffle them around and flip through is extremely valuable. It's also more portable than a stack of notebooks and less intimidating for writing. Here are some I filled recently:
- Take it seriously.
I do not see books as entertainment. As I have said before, to a writer books are what nutrition is to an athlete. The actual practice is a key part, but the right fuel is essential to get anywhere. Books are my sole indulgence (aside from tea), although I see them as a necessity. When you start to take reading seriously, it becomes more apparent that you need to use the knowledge.
- Rereading is key.
Usually, I will read once, go through again and take notes, then again to make any clear plans. Tools of Titans took about 3 months to read because I could not stop going over sections again and again. Some books serve as centrifuges in my life which I return to at regular intervals. I doubt I will ever finish The Waves by Virginia Woolf because I have to read each page a dozen times before I can move on. Seneca put it best:
'You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.'
- Forget about a magic bullet.
My previous articles about reading drew criticism from people who, ironically had clearly not read them, and who said speed reading is pointless. I completely agree. Looking for a 'brain hack' or whatever is ridiculous. I do know how to speed read, but only use it for research or reading terms and conditions. Returning to the athlete analogy, speed reading would be like living on candy. The process of reading itself should be satisfying. If you read to try and impress people with your vast knowledge, don't bother. Racing through something which might have taken years to create is outright offensive to the author. The same goes for reading nothing but summaries. It is useful to write them for yourself, but they alone are irrelevant. Unless you are doing something time-constrained, reading the full book is always worthwhile. A book - no matter how technical - is a journey and a narrative. Hayden White's paper on the fictions of historical representative beautifully covers this.
On the second reading, if I know I am going to keep a book, I annotate on the actual page. My system is simple. Square brackets for key paragraphs, underline key sentences, asterisks by potential inspiration, stars for techniques. I also make notes in the margins. Marginalia is powerful for drawing links and clarifying ideas.
I like this excerpt from How To Read A Book by Mortimer Adler:
Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably, he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher. He even has to be willing to argue with the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.
- Pay attention to the format.
I tend to only listen to audiobooks if I have already read the book. This is because I retain less of what I hear and it is difficult to make notes. Whilst I don't have a Kindle, I read some ebooks in PDF form on my phone and screenshot key parts, then transcribe. Physical books are always preferable.
- Figure out which parts of a book are actually essential.
Most authors have to reach a certain length. The key message of non-fiction books could usually be distilled into a page or even a sentence. Much of the book is often selling the reader on the author's ideas or concepts. The same goes for many fiction books. They are padded out with lengthy passages of description and dialogue. Whilst I do not tend to skip parts of books I try to condense what I have learned into something memorable.
- View knowledge as a latticework.
This means that when I read, I ask myself: what can I link this to? No matter the subject matter, I try to relate it to other topics I have read about. There are certain centrifugal books which I return to and base my understanding on. Charlie Munger put it best: “develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading. Cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.”
- Always find sources.
On a daily basis, I will find myself recalling a segment from a book, without remembering the source. When this happens, I always try to research until I find it. This can be an absolute pain. A combination of Google Books and databases of research papers make it easier. It is surprising how often a quote is not listed anywhere online. When this happens, q&a sites like Quora are helpful. I view this as a good practice for staying in tune with everything I read.
- Make coherent plans.
For practical books, I try to set a plan for how I can implement it in my life. Charlie Munger also described the necessity of using what you read: 'I don’t know anyone who’s wise who doesn’t read a lot. But that’s not enough: You have to have a temperament to grab ideas and do sensible things. Most people don’t grab the right ideas or don’t know what to do with them.'