5 Ways to Retain More of Every Book You Read
Whenever you learn a new mental model or idea, it's like the “software” in your brain gets updated. Suddenly, you can run all of your old data points through a new program. You can learn new lessons from old moments. Reading changes the past. Gaining knowledge is not the only reason to read, of course. Reading for pleasure or entertainment can be a wonderful use of time, but this article is about reading to learn. With that in mind, I'd like to share some of the best reading comprehension strategies I’ve found.
Choose Books You Can Use Instantly
One way to improve reading comprehension is to choose books you can immediately apply. Putting the ideas you read into action is one of the best ways to secure them in your mind. Practice is a very effective form of learning.
Choosing a book that you can use also provides a strong incentive to pay attention and remember the material. That’s particularly true when something important hangs in the balance. If you’re starting a business, for example, then you have a lot of motivation to get everything you can out of the sales book you’re reading.
Of course, not every book is a practical, how-to guide that you can apply immediately, and that's fine. You can find wisdom in many different books. But I do find that I'm more likely to remember books that are relevant to my daily life.
Write a Short Summary
As soon as I finish a book, I challenge myself to summarize the entire text in just three sentences. This constraint is just a game, of course, but it forces me to consider what was really important about the book.
Some questions I consider when summarizing a book include:
- > What are the main ideas?
- > If I implemented one idea from this book right now, which one would it be?
- > How would I describe the book to a friend?
In many cases, I find that I can usually get just as much useful information from reading my one-paragraph summary and reviewing my notes as I would if I read the entire book again.
Read It Twice
I'd like to finish by returning to an idea I mentioned near the beginning of this article: read the great books twice. The philosopher Karl Popper explained the benefits nicely, “Anything worth reading is not only worth reading twice, but worth reading again and again. If a book is worthwhile, then you will always be able to make new discoveries in it and find things in it that you didn’t notice before, even though you have read it many times.”
Additionally, revisiting great books is helpful because the problems you deal with change over time. Sure, when you read a book twice maybe you'll catch some stuff you missed the first time around, but it's more likely that new passages and ideas will be relevant to you. It's only natural for different sentences to leap out at you depending on the point you are at in life.
You read the same book, but you never read it the same way. Of course, even if you didn't get something new out of each reading, it would still be worthwhile to revisit great books because ideas need to be repeated to be remembered. When we only learn something once, we don’t really learn it—at least not well enough for it to change us much. It may inspire momentarily, but then becomes quickly overrun by the decades of habits and conditioning that preceded it. Returning to great ideas cements them in your mind.
Quit More Books
As a result, most people should probably start more books than they do. This doesn't mean you need to read each book page-by-page. You can skim the table of contents, chapter titles, and subheadings. Pick an interesting section and dive in for a few pages. Maybe flip through the book and glance at any bolded points or tables. In ten minutes, you'll have a reasonable idea of how good it is.
It doesn't take long to figure out if something is worth reading. Skilled writing and high-quality ideas stick out.
Then comes the crucial step: Quit books quickly and without guilt or shame.
Life is too short to waste it on average books. The opportunity cost is too high. There are so many amazing things to read. Start more books. Quit most of them. Read the great ones twice.
Surround the Topic
If you only read one book on a topic and use that as the basis for your beliefs for an entire category of life, well, how sound are those beliefs? How accurate and complete is your knowledge?
Reading a book takes effort, but too often, people use one book or one article as the basis for an entire belief system. This is even more true (and more difficult to overcome) when it comes to using our one, individual experience as the basis for our beliefs. One way to attack this problem is to read a variety of books on the same topic. Dig in from different angles, look at the same problem through the eyes of various authors, and try to transcend the boundary of your own experience.