It’s all well and good to read a lot of books. You flip those pages every night before bed, at every bus stop, and on every lunch break. You watch your bookshelf pile up with tomes you’ve torn through in record time. But what good is all that effort if you don’t remember what you read?
Remembering what you read is where it’s at. A friend of mine Tweeted the other day that they got half-way through reading a book and realised they had already read it – and that ain’t good! If you’re in the same boat, you’re in luck, because this happens to be my specialty. See, in a former life, I was a psychology graduate (with first class honours, thank you very much!). When I started thinking about what I could tell my friend on how to remember what you read, my brain instantly whirred into cognitive psychology mode, throwing up theories of memory processing and forgetting curves. The fact that I remember any of that stuff – stuff I read in textbooks over five years ago – should be the proof in this bloggy pudding. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all technical on you – here are my best, practical tips on how to remember what you read.
Before you even open a book, you should get familiar with what you’re about to read. This applies equally to fiction and non-fiction. If you’re about to read the memoir of a prominent member of the French Resistance, you probably want to have some background knowledge on WWII. Likewise, if you’re reading a fictional story set in 19th century London, you’ll understand (and therefore remember) a lot more of what’s going on if you’ve got some basic background knowledge to start off with.
It doesn’t have to be a long and drawn-out research process. Usually, just reading the introduction is enough – it will usually give you some kind of political and socio-economic context for a work of fiction, or a background on the author and the subject matter for non-fiction. If you want to go a little deeper, you’ve probably got a device in your pocket (or maybe you’re holding it in front of your face right now!) that can connect you to literally everything you might need to know about that book. So, really, it’s not that hard! 😉
I really should have done this myself when I read A Passage To India. There was no introduction in my edition, but I forged ahead without taking the time to research any further, and I ended up having to stop and Google things constantly as I was reading.
The idea of remaining actively engaged in a single pursuit for any extended period of time is kind of a joke in the age of instant notifications and the 24-hour news cycle. Believe me when I say, though, that you’ll notice a huge difference in how you remember what you read if you make an effort. Don’t have the TV on “in the background”, don’t check your phone, don’t cook dinner with one hand and hold your book with the other (besides being bad for memory, that’s just dangerous!). Even if you can only give 20 minutes of focused attention per day, or 10 minutes, or 3 precious minutes before your kids wake up, do it. Take whatever time you can to focus wholly and solely on what you’re reading.
In fact, it’s probably better to do it that way. Even without modern distractions, the average human brain has trouble staying completely focused for long stretches, but finds it relatively easy to maintain focus for shorter periods of time. Find whatever time period is optimal for you, and commit to using it for focused reading every day.
Sure, it might take you months to get through a book if you’re reading it in ten-minute bursts, but so what? It’s a huge mistake to get all hung up on reading “fast”. Burning through a book quickly is actually detrimental to your recall. When you space out your reading – a few chapters here, a few chapters there – you force your brain to shift the new information from working memory to long-term storage (because you’re going to need it later when you pick it up again). It’ll stick around in long-term storage for a while, especially seeing as you’re rehearsing the memory every time you go to knock out a few more pages. If you read the entire book in a single sitting, your brain doesn’t need to store as much information – after all, you’re not going to need to remember where to pick it up again, are you? Your brain will abandon all that lovely gooey information in favour of something more valuable that it will actually need later. So, read in short, focused bursts, and you’ll find you retain a lot more.
Think About What You’re Reading
I know, I know, this sounds laughably obvious, but hear me out! You’d be surprised at how many of us read passively, not really thinking about what we’re taking in and just letting the words wash over us. That can feel really good (like mindlessly binge-watching 22 episodes of a ’90s sitcom), but it’s not great if you’ve set a goal of remembering what you read.
So, what’s the easiest way to engage your brain? Challenge it! Find ways to put it to work. Your brain is like a border collie: it wants work to do, and if you don’t give it any, it’s going to run off and find something else to play with (or take a nap in the sun).
Try these tricks to get your brain into gear as you’re reading:
- Ask yourself questions about what you’re reading as you go. “Why would the protagonist do that? Is it what I would do if I were in her shoes? What do I like about the way this author writes? What’s the point that the author is trying to get across here?” It sounds really basic, but pausing after every few pages and posing a question like this to yourself will force your brain to actively engage with the content to formulate an answer, and that’s, like, nine-tenths of the effort getting it to store the information for recall later.
- Pause and visualise a scene or a character. Imagine what they look like, what they sound like, and make the whole thing as vivid as possible using the details that the author has given you.
- Link what you’re reading to things that you already know. That could mean putting the background knowledge to use, or it could simply mean finding parallels between the book and your life experience. Say the author mentions someone’s birthday – see if you can figure out a way to remember that (maybe it’s the same day as your wedding anniversary, or a week before a major public holiday).
- Stop at the end of each section or chapter, and try to paraphrase what you’ve just read to yourself. What happened? What did the author explain? What new information came to light? What do you need to remember?
Bonus: these tips won’t just help you remember what you read, they’ll also help you understand and apply what you read, so it’s a win-win-win!
For me, this is the most crucial step in remembering what I read. I’m constantly pausing to scribble something down – a great line, a thought I’ve had about a character, something interesting the author has done with perspective… In fact, it was these notebooks full of scribbles that gave rise to Keeping Up With The Penguins! 😉
There are different schools of thought as to whether it’s “okay” (or even optimal) to write in the books themselves – notes in the margins, highlighting or underlining the text, etc. At the end of the day, whether you choose to write in your books is between you and whatever God you believe in. I’m from the school that says writing in books is sacrilegious, and I will never, ever do it as long as I live. That’s why I always have a notebook on me when I’m reading. I never write essays or anything particularly long-winded – it’s mostly bullet-points and diagrams, sometimes a paragraph or two if I’m really moved by what I’m reading.
The most important thing about taking notes is that you take them, regardless of how or where. Find a method that works for you, one that you’re likely to stick with. It might sound like a chore, but if your goal is remembering what you read, this is probably the best thing you can do – writing information down helps you to remember it, whatever your learning style, whatever you’re reading. Plus, you’ll have the notes to refer back to later if the memory doesn’t stick!
Read Out Loud
If “thinking about the book you’re reading” sounded too obvious, then this one undoubtedly sounds too silly. I mean, what kind of loon reads out loud to themselves, right? Loons that want to remember what they read, that’s who!
Reading out loud gives your brain additional ways to code and retain the information. In addition to remembering reading the words visually, you have the opportunity to remember hearing them, and producing them with your own speech. This is particularly important if you’re an auditory learner (who learns best by listening, rather than by reading), but it will be helpful for anyone. There are a number of other benefits, too: for instance, if you tend to read for speed, reading out loud forces you to slow down and really think about what’s in front of you.
You get bonus points if you re-read and/or repeat crucial parts of books this way. I don’t think it will come as any great surprise that repetition is great for strengthening memory. If there are particular parts of the book that you really need to lock in your mind-safe, try reading them once and taking notes as you go, then going back later and reading the relevant parts out loud to yourself.
Teach Someone Else (Preferably, A Toddler)
There are about a dozen different sayings and quotes about this, and they all boil down to the same thing: you’ll understand and remember something better if you teach it to someone else. That’s because your experiential memory is the strongest kind there is (you’re more likely to remember something you experience than something you read), so you should really be taking advantage of that.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman’s technique for remembering what you read included this vital step. The “Feynman Technique” (creative name, eh?) includes choosing and learning about a concept, then doing your best to explain it to a toddler. That will help you identify any gaps in your own understanding, at which point you can return to your materials and review them until you’re ready to try again. Clearly, it worked for him!
The whole idea of explaining it to a toddler, rather than an adult, is that it forces you to condense your learning and simplify the concepts, ensuring that you truly understand what it is that you’re passing on rather than just regurgitating fancy words. If you can’t explain it to a toddler, you probably don’t understand it well.
If you don’t have a toddler on hand, that’s okay – you can still pass on your new-found wisdom. Participate in a book club, or talk to family and friends who have read the book (or comment on a blog… ahem!). Whatever you choose, the very act of discussing the content with someone else gives your brain all the more opportunity to strengthen the memories by associating them with other things (the conversation you have and your experience of it). The more connections your brain makes between the content and your experiences, the stronger your memory and the longer it will last.
Finally, Choose Wisely
Perhaps this should have come first, but I think it’s a good note to end on: choose the right book. You’re going to have a much better shot at remembering something you find interesting and entertaining than you will something that bores you to tears. Make sure you have a clear idea of why you’re reading the book (for fun, for work, for curiosity’s sake), and why you want to remember what you read (to apply it at work, to ace your exam, to improve your own writing). If you’re just reading a book so that you can say that you did, or because “everyone else is reading it”, you probably have no personal stake in it at all. Your chances of remembering it in great detail won’t be good. Move on to another book – one that’s more suited to your tastes and circumstances and needs. You’ll find that memory comes much easier!
The quality of your reading matters infinitely more than the quantity of your reading. As I said in the beginning, it’s all well and good to be the fastest reader in the world… but what are you actually getting out of those 10 books per week? Far better to take your time and really immerse yourself in a book that you love, and get everything out of it that you can, don’t you think? When you do that, and embed some really strong memories of what you read, you get to carry it with you for the rest of your life.