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    How to remember books after reading them

    Who I am
    Louise Hay
    @louisehay
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    Reading a book is not just about turning the pages. It means reflecting, identifying the parts to return to, questioning how to place them in a wider context, developing ideas. There is no point in reading a book if you just run the words in front of your eyes and forget about them after ten minutes. Reading a book is an intellectual exercise, which stimulates thought, questions and imagination. Noam Chomsky

    Why remember what you read, even briefly, is it so difficult?



    Why, if I asked you to tell me about the last book you just finished, you probably wouldn't be able to organize a speech that lasted more than two minutes?

    How come we spend hours and hours reading all kinds of texts and, at the end of the day, we have so little left of them?

    The reason, so obvious that few know it, is that we weren't born to read (and write).

    We have in fact limited ourselves, for 200 thousand years, to making some descriptive drawings and little more.

    While the alphabet we invented it just over 3.000 years ago, or yesterday in terms of evolutionary times.

    And therefore reading is not part of our innate abilities: our brain is not programmed to do so.

    Think about it …

    A child sees, hears, makes sounds, crawls and sooner or later stands up and walks, without any need that these things be taught to him.

    There are skill that develops spontaneously, according to a pattern and times established by nature, written in its genetic code.

    The written expression of the language and consequently the reading instead, must learn them from someone.



    This is one of the most sensational and important effects of our neuroplasticity: a series of brain areas reorganize themselves to learn to do an activity - the coding of sounds into signs - for which they were not originally programmed.

    Of course though, we haven't gotten very good at it yet, and so:

    • We are relatively slow, and indeed recognizing a word costs us several milliseconds more than just recognizing an image
    • We remember what we read much less well than what we see (cf. the article on the power of visual memory).

    On how to read faster I wrote one of the most viewed articles on the GetPersonalGrowth blog.

    To better remember the books you read instead, I propose the 4 rules that I use.

    1. Read actively

    For many, reading a book is almost synonymous with being quiet, lying on a sofa under the blanket, with a hot tea next to it.

    That's fine, but when you read like this don't expect to remember who knows what. 

    And the reason is simple: you are in passive mode, you are perhaps reading to relax but certainly not to remember.

    If you want to remember what you read more, you need to switch to active mode: underline, take notes in the margin, make small summaries at the end of the chapter or in your notebook, filter and highlight phrases, concepts, ideas or events that interest you or affect you the most.


    Therefore, when you read, always have at least one pencil handy and use it mercilessly.

    I know that many are reluctant to do so, for fear of ruining the book, but as Professor Keating says in the Fleeting Moment “Don't be afraid, it's not the Bible. You will certainly not go to hell ”.


    If you are reading in an e-book, however, have a notebook or app, such as Evernote, handy.

    2. Reverse engineer the text

    That is, reverse the production process that created it.

    When an author writes, usually starts from a core of fundamental ideas, organized in a pattern, and progressively expands them to give them the final shape and length they take in the book.

    To remember a book you read you have to do exactly the reverse procedure: starting from the entire text and slowly going back up to the essential core of original ideas around which it was built.

    To do this, it is very useful to start with asking questions.

    Why did the author give the contents a certain order? Why did you choose these and not others? What cut did you want to give it? What exactly did he want to communicate with this or that statement? Why are you talking about this and not that?

    Whether it's literature or manuals, you will see that reverse engineering is a fascinating process, which helps you get inside the author's head to the point of almost, at times, identifying yourself with him.


    3. Jump off the page

    What do I mean by this expression?

    That you must not limit the reading of a book, in fact, at the edge of the book itself.

    Instead, you must continuously:

    • do associations between what you are reading and what you already know
    • evaluate if and how what is written fits with past experiences or other reading
    • pay attention to feelings and thoughts that reading arouses you
    • to build analogies and contrasts, to express judgments, to build reflections, insights e synthesis.

    In short, if you want to remember what you read, you must ensure that the content of the book becomes part of your world, relating in some way to ideas, knowledge and sensations. that are already part of it.


    When a notion is not completely autonomous and independent but is inserted in a context of already existing ideas / knowledge / experiences, it is much easier to remember it.

    A bit like we have seen with memory techniques: they work because the new memories of short term are associated with those of long term already present in the brain.

    4. Alternate sprint and rest

    As we have seen in the previous 3 points, the type of reading you need to do when you want to remember a book well is one intellectually very intense activity, very different from the normal passive reading.

    For this reason it works best when you make frequent breaks: they allow you not to get tired and to always keep the level of attention high.

    For some time now, when I want to remember what I read I use the tomato technique: 25 minutes of intense and active reading alternating with 5 minutes of complete physical and mental relaxation.

    The tomato technique, in addition to allowing me to go on reading for many hours without exhausting my energy, has a further advantage for memorization purposes.

    You see, when you have to memorize a list of words, concepts, numbers, usually the first and last elements of the list they remember better.

    It is the so-called serial effect, discovered nearly 150 years ago by Ebbinghaus in his studies on spaced repetition and memorization. 

    Similarly it should happen when you read a book using the Pomodoro technique: since each sprint phase has a beginning and an end, and since these are remembered better than the central part, increasing the number of reading sessions increases the number of starts and ends. ends, thus increasing the amount of general memory.

    But be careful not to overdo it: beyond a certain amount of fragmentation, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages, because it becomes more difficult to follow the overall logic of the reading.

    Dividing it into 25-minute sessions alternating with 5-minute breaks, as is done in the tomato technique, is in my opinion the best compromise.

    How to remember a book? Clarification + Conclusions

    In reality "remember a book "  it does not mean anything, or rather, it is too imprecise a statement to mean anything.

    This is because remembering is not a binary activity, that is, all or nothing.

    Instead, it is a concept that moves along a continuum that provides for infinite intermediate possibilities.

    You can, for example, read pages and pages, word by word, in total absence of attention and memorization.

    A bit like when you drive on the highway and you find yourself driving miles and miles without remembering anything about them, in complete brain blackout, as if you had engaged the autopilot.

    This type of reading is just a waste of time that you must avoid.

    You can also, and often have to, read to memorize, investing hundreds of hours in studying a book and getting to know all its contents perfectly.

    This type of reading is very important but also limiting: for reasons of time it can only be done with a small number of texts. Which, for those who are particularly curious and thirsty for knowledge, is a bit frustrating.

    You can also limit yourself simply to reading for the sake of it, focusing on the sound and meaning of the words, appreciating the concepts exposed, getting excited about the events, but without reflecting or reworking anything in a specific way.

    This type of reading normally has no goal that it doesn't let it be the pleasure of reading itself. It relaxes you, sometimes it actually makes you really enjoy, but it has the defect that most of what you read is soon forgotten. 

    And finally, you can read a book without studying it, but still trying to face it with a physical and intellectual commitment higher than that of pure pleasure.

    In this way you will remember it enough to make it a part of you, through a process of active manipulation of the text, your thoughts and your way of reading it.

    This last type of reading is what we talked about today and it is also the one, in my opinion, that gives more satisfaction. It is the reading that I believe Chomsky is referring to in the sentence with which I began today's article.

    A greeting. Anthony

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