7 Ways to Remember What You Read

by Cameron Schaefer on March 10, 2008

book stackReading is one of the best ways to learn, develop and change. However, the immense benefits of reading are only as great as one’s ability to remember and process the information. Nothing is more frustrating than reading a great book and not being able to recall any of the major points a year or even a month later. It makes the whole process seem like a huge waste.

My family are all avid readers and they instilled that passion in me. I try to read at least 2 books a month, but often more. Over the past few years I’ve made a much greater effort to be more intentional about my reading, making sure to get the most out of the process. Here is some of the best advice I’ve come across when it comes to remembering what you read:

1) Read With the Goal of Teaching Someone Else – My friend Glenn has one of the most brilliant minds I know. He can read a book and process the information, quickly adapting new ideas into his life and teaching others along the way. The secret to Glenn’s ability started during his childhood. Every weekend his family would go to the local library to read. During dinner they would teach the other members of the family what they learned that day. This ritual formed a wonderful habit in Glenn of reading comprehensively in order to teach someone else. He had to constantly think, “How will I be able to explain the main ideas of this book to others.” In doing so he delved deep into the book and the information stuck with him.

2) Read the Last Chapter First – This one is more geared towards non-fiction as I can already hear people screaming, “But it’ll ruin the ending!” At the end of most books is a summary chapter that gives the main ideas and how they all tie together. By reading this first you are then able to catch these ideas and themes more easily as you go through the book. It also allows you to read like the author would read his own book, with a full understanding of where everything is going.

3) Take Notes – Lots of people utilize this technique in school, but let it go when they toss their caps at graduation. Taking notes allows a reader to right down key points, themes and memorable quotes. In doing so the information is then processed twice, once when read and once when written. This gives the reader a much greater chance of remembering. My friend Beau uses a pencil to mark and highlight in the book as he reads and then transfers this information into Google Docs. He has a great summary of his method here.

4) Read When You’re Awake – Most people read right before they go to bed. After a long day, they’re usually tired and hardly in the best state to process and retain information. By reading at other times throughout the day chances are their minds would work much better. If you are a night person maybe it is the best time for you to read. The important thing is to know your body and know what times of day are best for thinking and concentrating. Try to schedule your reading during these times and you will give yourself a much better chance of remembering what you read.

5) Discuss What You’re Reading – Some of the books we remember most vividly are those that we read in our high school English class. Why? It is the practice of nearly every teacher to have lively class discussions and debates over each section of a book. In discussing the book we were able to process the information as a group, bouncing ideas off each other and hearing different perspectives. All of these made us use the information in various ways cementing it in our minds and helping us remember. Most of us are no longer in high school, but the options are endless. Join a book club, or if you have a good group of friends, start one. Discuss the book online in book forums or in a social networking group like Facebook. The important thing is to talk about what you’re reading.

6) Read the Cliff Notes First – We’re not in high school anymore, so it’s not cheating. Especially for some of the classics, reading the cliff notes before starting the book can provide all kids of insight into characters, themes, symbolism and author background. By reading these things beforehand you are helping ensure that you won’t miss them as you read the book. Another benefit of reading summaries is the mental debate you will have each time you reach a controversial section as you ask yourself whether you agree with the conventional interpretations.

7) Find Your Reading Environment – Sometimes more important than how you are reading is where you are reading. Is the television on? Are the kids crawling all over you? Do you do your best reading on the airplane? Some things can’t be helped, but finding a good reading environment goes a long way. I had never thought much about where I read until reading a great post Ben Casnocha wrote on optimizing activity for location a couple months ago. He explained, “…when thinking about what you’re going to do, think about where you’re going to be, and how that place will affect your productivity at completing the activity.” Find your reading environment and enjoy remembering what you read.

{ 83 comments… read them below or add one }

nisha shetty May 9, 2012 at 6:23 am

good article indeed

Amir Mehmood June 19, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Very helpful. Thanks

kadesh July 26, 2012 at 7:01 pm

enlightened! thanks!

saloni July 29, 2012 at 12:23 am

very helpful and wothfulll thanks….

Niko August 13, 2012 at 10:26 am

Hi Cameron!
I would really like to know your friends’ technique about how to take notes and upload them to google doc – unfotunately the link doesn’t work anymore. Could you please reniew it or give a short description? Thanks in advance :)

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Thank you so much! I have a pretty bad memory, so I’ll try to follow your trick for the next book I’m about to read. I’m a little nervous for suggestion #2, but I guess it’s worth the shot.

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Thanks for these reminders, especially #5 helps me to remember, when I discuss and tell others what i read.

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