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?
“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
All respect to Ralphie, but 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.Think of this strategy like fishing with a net: your prior knowledge is the 'net' in your memory, and bits of information from the book are the 'fish'. Without a net, they swim right past you, but if you've got a good strong net in place, you're going to catch (remember) a lot of stuff.Click To Tweet
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! I actually wrote a separate post about how to read and the psychology of reading here, if you want to know more.
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!
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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 an overrated classic 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.
Want to read more? Check out my complete How To Read More series starting here, and subscribe to my mailing list to get the best recommended reads and bookish discussions hot and fresh in your inbox:
Or, check these out:
- Trivia Questions about Books and Literature: Answered!
- Fun Facts about Books and Authors
- Books That Will Teach You Something New
And, a friendly reminder, you can help to keep Keeping Up With The Penguins running, right here:
October 14, 2018 at 7:21 AM
Teaching other people is SUCH a good strategy! I do this a lot when I’ve learned something new that I’m not completely confident I will retain — explain it to a few people around me until I feel a little steadier about it. I know I did it when I was trying to understand why we know there is such a thing as dark matter, and it totally worked! I still know why we know that!
October 14, 2018 at 12:01 PM
Yep, spot on!! My poor husband “volunteers” as guinea pig a lot of the time when I’m trying to set something to memory, but I flatter myself to think I’m helping him learn too 😉 hahahaha.
June 20, 2019 at 2:54 PM
I loved this article. Tips given here are great. But, to me, taking notes on a separate notebook seems too much.
June 22, 2019 at 9:44 AM
That’s alright – take what works for you, leave the rest! All the best with it, happy reading! 🙂
October 21, 2018 at 9:03 AM
Back in college, I realized that I wasn’t reading and retaining. I was a double English and History major at Smith with NO time. Sometimes I would be required to read about 1,000 pages a week along with 2-3 papers. I worked, ran orgs, you know… I thought I was reading and doing the work, but then I would get to class and have NO idea what I read. I couldn’t participate in class discussions. So embarrassing because I READ. I was reading too quickly, under too much stress, and sometimes skimming. I had distractions and didn’t take a ton of notes. The notes I took were meaningless by the time I hit class. This definitely wasn’t conducive to anything. Your advice above is 100% spot on.
These days, as a part book blogger, like you mention: I take notes. Any kind of notes help. They aren’t extensive or even mind blowing but anything to keep me going. I won’t write in my books like college ; ) It’s odd what I remember years later about a book now and what I’ve forgotten.
My weirdest reading quirk was in HS. I was in AP English, and we had to practice for those damn tests. I always understood the harder questions that asked you to look really in depth into a piece of literature. I always bombed the basic questions, though: LIKE CHARACTERS’ NAMES. My English teacher even pulled me aside to discuss and was like, slow down–those are important to take note of too. I just got so deep into the story, I breezed past names.
Love this post!
October 22, 2018 at 10:41 AM
Yep, I’m right there with you – sometimes I write down the most inane shit for notes (stuff like “it’s like that other one with the thing” or “they all marry each other the end”), but ultimately it doesn’t really matter, because it’s the act of writing it down and consciously thinking it over that helps the most. And I’m terrible with character names, too 😉
November 5, 2018 at 1:07 PM
I need some Ginkgo or something. My review for Tuesday was major brain farts. I couldn’t remember the dang protagonist’s name for a sec…and the chapters alternated with hers at the top of every 3rd one. Sigh. My AP English teacher would be so disappointed.
October 24, 2018 at 7:11 PM
Sadly I have the memory of a goldfish, who are you again?
October 25, 2018 at 1:15 PM
Hahahahahahaha I’m your favourite book blogger in the whole wide world, of course 😛
March 2, 2019 at 7:28 PM
I’ve just read this article. I guess I can remember almost everything. 😉 Love the post ! About taking notes, the french sixteenth century philosopher Michel de Montaigne had the habit of making a single note just after reading a book. Without opening the book again, he wrote a page long note containing the plot, the main characters…
This technique is an efficient way to avoid loosing all the read material even if none of the tips you’ve explained were followed….
March 3, 2019 at 7:55 PM
That’s a great tip, Francois, a really good one for people to try if they’re not inclined to take notes as they go. Thank you!! ❤️
March 5, 2019 at 5:29 AM
There are some really useful hints and tips here, thank you. I am that person who js red several chapters of a book before realising I’ve red it before, however, only ever with fiction. I can hold on to ‘information for purpose’ (as I call it) and recall it years later. Fiction, on the other hand, in, around, and out the other side. Maybe I’m a no hoper but I prefer to think of it as freeing up disposable memory and in the meantime I’ll just keep reading😉
March 5, 2019 at 8:04 AM
Hey, as long as you’re having a good time and getting what you need out of your reading, that’s what matters! Sounds like your brain has a really efficient system for that, I love it 😉👍
April 4, 2019 at 11:31 AM
This is great stuff. Really appreciate your help.
April 23, 2019 at 11:42 AM
I so needed to hear this… There’s no point in being a fast reader. There’s just so much emphasis on the number these days! Including the reading challenge on good reads. While it’s amazing to have a goal, you end up thinking of the number instead of the content all the time!
Great content by the way 👍
April 23, 2019 at 1:20 PM
Cheers Sneha! I’m totally with you – reading fast doesn’t mean you’re reading better! Glad I could help 😉👍
May 2, 2019 at 10:40 PM
I used to flaunt looking at my friends how they read so many books & narrate later. I tried but failed many times – this made me sick & I dropped the idea of reading(excepttion: during exams..haha) .
Recently I googled some of the bloggers about this problem & I found yours more practical.
Thanks dude, I hope this strategy would definitely help me out in remembering the reading material.
Keep spreading the good work. All the best.
May 3, 2019 at 11:27 PM
Glad I could help, my absolute pleasure! 😉
January 19, 2020 at 5:09 PM
Made me realize how many things I can avoid which I’ve been unconsciously doing while reading which I can now avoid 👍
January 20, 2020 at 6:24 AM
That’s awesome, Anita – so glad I could help! Thank you! 🙂
January 20, 2020 at 7:59 AM
I highlight parts of every book I read. I also re-read them. I don’t read traditional fiction, for me it’s a waste of time. Personal development, leadership development, etc is what allows me to grow in areas I need to and become the best man I can.
January 20, 2020 at 1:08 PM
So glad that highlighting and re-reading works for you, James! It’s a shame to limit your reading, though – all the best men I’ve ever known have loved “traditional fiction”. All the best!
January 31, 2020 at 3:19 AM
This is good and it help a lot. i thick focus to what you are reading is very important and avoid distraction .
July 6, 2020 at 9:02 PM
Great ideas! Congrats on a well executed essay. The sad part is I am 75 and it might be wasted on me.
July 7, 2020 at 7:01 PM
I’m sure it wouldn’t be, Richard! It’s never too late 😉 Thank you!
September 4, 2020 at 4:47 AM
You’re fantastic and thank you so much for the guidance and tips. I also believe that reading thoroughly though a bit slow is much better than reading it fast without properly understanding the meaning. Plus, now I’ve started to read aloud and I found it really really helpful in enhancing my reading skills to learn and remember better. Thanks again! You’re inspiring! Keep up the good work! All the best!
September 4, 2020 at 5:01 PM
Thank you so much Ritika, and good on you! Keep it up, and happy reading!
October 10, 2020 at 11:42 PM
I was so worried about studying, going back after so long. I am 63. But reading this has giving a nudge in the right direction even if it is just to try. Thank you.
October 11, 2020 at 6:54 AM
That’s wonderful Joanne, good on you! Best of luck with your studies, I’m sure you’ll be great 😉
January 2, 2021 at 4:06 AM
I write down all useful ideas into a notebook.
Some mobile apps also help (OneNote, Evernote, Readult, etc).
The idea is to get back to them as often as you can, and rehearse.
January 3, 2021 at 2:15 PM
Excellent suggestions! Thank you, John!
July 24, 2021 at 9:51 PM
Thank you for the valuable information. The key to reading is to
understand what you are reading and retain the information to apply it later in different situations of our life.
Thank you and have a blessed day.
July 26, 2021 at 10:00 AM
Thank you, Weluzani! Happy reading!
September 18, 2021 at 7:30 PM
Thank you it has been or let me say very informative helpful. Gives me the opportunity to revisit the way I have been doing.
September 20, 2021 at 9:53 AM
Awesome! Good luck, Daniel!
November 9, 2021 at 7:47 AM
Thank you for giving these tips, I know its definitely going to work
November 15, 2021 at 11:23 AM
Awesome! My pleasure Ruth, and good luck! 😉
April 12, 2022 at 3:18 AM
Your time to help others is appreciated, thanks so much.❣️⚖️❤️📖🏃🏾♀️🏃🏼♂️🚶🏼♀️🏃🏿♀️🏃🏻♀️🏃🏻♀️📖🚶🏻♂️🏃♀️🏃♀️🚶🏾♀️🚶🏽♂️🚶🏿♂️🚶♀️🚶🏿♀️🚶🏽♀️🚶🏾♂️⛲🌴🛐🙏🏽
April 12, 2022 at 12:40 PM
My absolute pleasure, Michael!
September 21, 2022 at 8:56 PM
This blog is gold! the tips are practical and implementable. The ‘net’ and ‘fish’ strategy is excellent. Thank you.
September 24, 2022 at 1:35 PM
Happy to help Pravin – happy reading! 🤓📚