How to Read to Remember What You Read

Reading is the ultimate meta-skill. If you learn how to read, you can learn almost anything. If you learn to like to read, you never have to go to school.

I wasn’t much of a reader growing up. I visited the library a handful of times a year, mostly out of necessity, but would nonetheless leave with a stack of books that catch my eye. They’d almost always be the ones with the prettiest covers, which I’d rarely progress beyond, before having to return them before the due date, or risk losing a sizable chunk of my pocket money.

I liked the idea of reading. Getting lost in my imaginary worlds with my favorite characters, role models, and super powers was something I would often skip meals for. For me, a good book was a creative refuge where anything was possible, where I can escape the realities of growing up. But after discovering Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle Earth, the next magical worlds became harder and harder to come by, especially if you’re judging a book by its cover, and my interest began to wane. The problem of discovery was soon superseded by video games, music, sports, and girls.

It wasn’t until much later, when I picked up a Kindle in fact, that I rediscovered my fondness for reading. The access to almost any book I desired, along with their Amazon and Goodreads reviews was a profound moment in my self-education. Luckily, I had also learnt not to judge a book by its cover by then.

Having instantaneous access to books opened the whole world of non-fiction to me. Turns out non-fiction isn’t just droll textbooks, but snapshots of the human condition through the ages. I began to recognize just how valuable reading was as a skill. Whether you’re challenging your imaginative boundaries, or picking up new skills, reading is how you take control of your own education.

The proliferation of the internet births newer platforms and ways of sharing ideas. Whether through blogs, tweets or books, the ability to read and to process and retain what you read is becoming more and more important in our modern way of life. From these new mediums, I’ve noticed that the people that I most admire and respect all have a prolific reading habit. Rather than reading just for fun, my purpose has since shifted towards reading for learning and problem solving. As the author and strategist Ryan Holiday puts it,

“Human beings have been recording their knowledge in book form for more than 5,000 years. That means that whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere by someone a lot smarter than you. Save yourself the trouble of learning from trial and error–find that point.”

Over the past two years, I’ve read 83 books, covering topics from psychology, philosophy, business, to the Napoleonic wars. But if you asked me to recall the main ideas of each book, I would probably struggle with about a third of them. So while they might’ve been enjoyable at the time, I’m potentially losing a third of the knowledge I could’ve otherwise added to my problem solving tool kit. Looking back, I only learned to read, but not how to read.

How to read for knowledge

As with most problems I face, its already addressed by people a lot smarter than me. The problem of how to read is as old as writing itself. Of the wide ranging systems developed over millennia, I’ve attempted to deconstruct some of what’s worked, to reconfigure a system that works for me.

1.    Read the reviews

Find out what other readers took away from the book. What was its cultural significance? How does it compare to other works in the subject area?

Get the big picture arguments of the book. This is usually the actionable advice and ideas that you can apply to your own thinking. The rest of the 300 pages are the explanations, anecdotes, and supporting arguments to figure out how much you trust the author.

2.    Ruin the ending

With non-fiction, “ruining the ending” makes the rest of the book easier to digest. As with reading reviews, the goal is to understand the conclusions. You shouldn’t be wading through the first three chapters trying to grasp what the author is trying to say. You can also overcome biases in the reviews and fill in any gaps with a quick Google search or going to the Wikipedia article.

3.    Read the intro, preface, and conclusion

How is the argument structured? What are the book’s influences? The intro and preface often provide much needed background and context; how the work relates to previous books, notes on the translation, and a general direction of where the author is going. The conclusion lets you know what the author wants you to take away from it.

4.    Move on if you lose interest

Skip the paragraph, chapter, or book if you lose interest. There’re enough good books to “curl up with” over multiple lifetimes. XKCD estimates that the total number of books in English probably passed the lifetime reading limit sometime in the late 1500s.

This has been, and still is the most difficult thing for me to overcome. In a culture where “finishing what you started” is integral to a good work ethic, I’ve found it helpful to treat books as throwaway blog posts.

Naval Ravikant, CEO and co-founder of AngelList captures it nicely,

“Don’t feel the need to read anything you don’t want to read. Read the stuff that’s fun to you, because it’s more important to form the habit, and the practice and the enjoyment of reading and to associate it, Pavlovian style, with something positive rather than negative.”

5.    Look it up

When faced with new words or concepts, look it up. This is where the Kindle’s dictionary and Wikipedia features come in handy. It’s not only expanded my vocabulary, but the act of looking things up creates a deeper connection; thus a stronger memory, to other adjacent ideas.

6.    Highlight important passages

Especially those that you can apply elsewhere.

7.    Write a single page summary after each chapter

After each chapter, create bullet points of the main ideas that come to mind.

I find this process can interrupt my flow, so for shorter chapters, I’ll create summaries after two or three chapters.

Though I can’t speak to the efficacy of this technique for me yet, it’s recommended by both Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan — two books that have challenged the way I think.

8.    Summarize the book

When you’ve finished the book, summarize using bullet points, the main ideas of the book on a single page. If you get stuck, go back and review your notes and highlighted passages. This ties the core ideas together and helps reinforce the author’s main message.

9.    Put the book down for a week

10.    Review your notes & highlights

Which ideas stuck? Which important ideas didn’t? Review your one page book summary, and individual chapter summaries if necessary.

11.    Export notes & highlights into a commonplace book

Commonplace books are essentially scrapbooks for storing quotes and ideas for later use. Rather than organized chronologically like a diary, commonplace books are categorized by subject or theme.

Like the habit of reading, keeping a commonplace book was another pattern of top performers; throughout history, and across disciplines. Emperors (Marcus Aurelius and Napoleon), philosophers (John Locke), scientists (Carl Linnaeus), and entrepreneurs (Bill Gates) all kept commonplace books.

I used Robert Greene’s (and Ryan Holiday’s) commonplace book system using hand written index cards for five books. But I found the digital version of the system using Evernote an easier habit to adopt.

12.    After 4 weeks, review your reading process

How much of the books you read in the last month still stuck? Mark it in your calendar. Experiment and tweak the process, change the order, and keep iterating until you find a process and habit that works for you.

The process need not only apply to books, but works equally well with essays and blog articles too.

Connect & apply what you learnt

Reading is only useful insofar as its impact on the way you think. The goal is not to recite facts, but to build up your latticework of Mental Models, and ultimately, shape the way you analyze situations to make better decisions.

Apply the mindset of the author or the characters to challenges in your life. Like a “What would Jesus do” bracelet, use it as a virtuous and calming reminder, especially in the face of stress or the unexpected. If you encounter a technical problem, how might Elon Musk use first principles to deconstruct this problem? When faced with personal loss and suffering, how might Viktor Frankl cope, find meaning, and move forward with renewed purpose?

Reading is the ultimate meta-skill. The goal of my reading process is to build a sustainable habit — to learn to love to read. It’s taken me years to escape the classroom mindset of reading for a test. Now, I’m reading to learn, reading to problem solve, and reading to lead.


Further reading:

My current process is inspired by the reading processes of: