A great place to start with book retention is with understanding some key ways our brain stores information. Here are three specific elements to consider:
Let’s say you read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, one of our favorites here at Buffer. You loved the information and want to remember as much as possible. Here’s how:
Impression – Be impressed with the text. Stop and picture a scene in your mind, even adding elements like greatness, shock, or a cameo from yourself to make the impression stronger. If Dale Carnegie is explaining his distaste for criticism, picture yourself receiving the Nobel Prize for Peace and then spiking the Nobel Prize onto the dais.
(Another trick with impression is to read an important passage out loud. For some of us, our sensitivity to information can be greater with sounds rather than visuals.)
Association – Link the text to something you already know. This technique is used to great effect with memorization and the construction of memory palaces. In the case of Carnegie’s book, if there is a particular principle you wish to retain, think back to a time when you were part of a specific example involving the principle. Prior knowledge is a great way to build association.
Repetition – The more you repeat, the more you remember. This can occur by literally re-reading a certain passage or in highlighting it or writing it down then returning to it again later.
Practicing these three elements of remembering will help you get better and better. The more you work at it, the more you’ll remember.
Focus on the four levels of reading
Mortimer Adler’s book, How to Read a Book, identifies four levels of reading:
Each step builds upon the previous step. Elementary reading is what you are taught in school. Inspectional reading can take two forms: 1) a quick, leisurely read or 2) skimming the book’s preface, table of contents, index, and inside jacket.
Where the real work (and the real retention begins) is with analytical reading and syntopical reading.
With analytical reading, you read a book thoroughly. More so than that even, you read a book according to four rules, which should help you with the context and understanding of the book.
- Classify the book according to subject matter.
- State what the whole book is about. Be as brief as possible.
- List the major parts in order and relation. Outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
- Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.
The final level of reading is syntopical, which requires that you read books on the same subject and challenge yourself to compare and contrast as you go.
As you advance through these levels, you will find yourself incorporating the brain techniques of impression, association, and repetition along the way. Getting into detail with a book (as in the analytical and syntopical level) will help cement impressions of the book in your mind, develop associations to other books you’ve read and ideas you’ve learned, and enforce repetition in the thoughtful, studied nature of the different reading levels.
Keep the book close (or at least your notes on the book.)
One of the most common threads in my research into remembering more of the books you read is this: Take good notes.
Scribble in the margins as you go.
Bookmark your favorite passages.
Write a review when you’ve finished.
Use your Kindle Highlights extensively.
And when you’ve done these things, return to your notes periodically to review and refresh.
Shane Parrish of Farnam Street is a serial note taker, and he finds himself constantly returning to the books he reads.
Even Professor Pierre Bayard, the author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, identifies the importance of note-taking and review:
I’ve tried this method for myself, and it has completely changed the way I perceive the books I read. I look at books as investments in a future of learning rather than a fleeting moment of insight, soon to be forgotten. I store all the reviews and notes from my books on my personal blog so I can search through them when I need to remember something I’ve read.
(Kindle has a rather helpful feature online, too, where it shows you a daily, random highlight from your archive of highlights. It’s a great way to relive what you’ve read in the past.)
It’s not important which method you have for note-taking and review so long as you have one. Let it be as simple as possible to complete so that you can make sure you follow through.
More from Buffer:
- The Two Brain Systems that Control Our Attention: The Science of Gaining Focus
- Remember More of What You Read and Hear: 6 Research-Tested Ways to Improve Your Memory
- How to Never Forget the Name of Someone You Know: The Science of Memory
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