How to Retain What You Read Without Taking Notes

by Marko Martelli
how to retain what you read

Do you struggle to retain what you read?

So often, we read a book but fail to recall its content.

Sometimes, it’s even embarrassing.

We tell our friend we‘ve read this amazing book. But, once we‘re asked to explain what that book is all about and why we like it that much, we can‘t give a satisfying answer.

We just keep forgetting what we read.

And, when we don‘t remember vital details, reading can feel like a waste of time. With that, books lose their core value.


Why We Have Trouble Retaining Information

Well, usually, we read passively. We read for entertainment. We read to kill time.

Instead of reading to extract information and gain understanding, we use books as a sedative. Hence, we fail to make rich impressions on our memory.

Though we occasionally want to relax and send our minds on a trip, we also wish to develop our minds and get more out of a book than the casual reader. And for that to happen, we‘ve got to invest extra work.

Caveat: Before we continue, to the practical part of how to retain what you read, let me remark that reading for comprehension and retention requires slow-paced reading. Okay, but is it worth it? You bet it is!

When we speak of someone as “well-read,” we should have this ideal in mind. Too often, we use that phrase to mean the quantity rather than the quality of reading. A person who has read widely but not well deserves to be pitied rather than praised. As Thomas Hobbes said, “If I read as many books as most men do, I would be as dull-witted as they are.”
Mortimer J. Adler

Now, let‘s get to the practical “how-to” part.


How to Retain What You Read:

Let me introduce to you the basic principles that’ll help you if you’ve got trouble retaining information.

  • Full attention. Read each sentence as if it were dissolved after your first reading. If you don‘t get the meaning the first time, go back and reread it.
  • Full comprehension. After each chapter or paragraph, ask yourself, „What is the writer talking about?“
    Want to make sure you really understood the author? Test comprehension by paraphrasing what you‘ve read. Omitting individual insights may eventually lead to major problems in understanding advanced material.
  • Accumulate & Translate. Use a dictionary for words you don‘t understand and write these words, including their translation, on a piece of paper. Before and ideally, after each reading session, you want to go through your growing vocabulary list and add a few to your flash card system.
  • Visualize. Try visualizing crucial scenes. Strive to establish a clear mental picture of concepts, scenes, and characters. If you can envision it, you understand it.

If you never ask yourself any questions about the meaning of a passage, you cannot expect the book to give you any insights you do not already possess.
Mortimer J. Adler

The process of reading to truly grasp what the author is saying boosts your comprehension and retention.

Anyway, we can bring it to the next level.


How to Retain Even More – For Important Books

You’ve got some books that’re seriously important to you? Good, use the steps below to burn a book into your memory for good.

  • Review, at the end of each chapter and in your mind, the main ideas, scenes, occurrences.
  • Then, after each reading session, review everything you‘ve read so far. Do this after each and every session, adding new content to your reviews.

Gradually you‘ll digest and master the whole book, and in the process, make it your own. You‘ll quickly recognize, your reading retention will go through the roof.

Again, this way, you‘ll read a lot slower. Yet, your gain will outweigh the extra time you‘ve got to invest significantly.

Follow these steps, and you‘ll easily remember the story/contents of a book and gain much pleasure in „re-reading“ the whole book in your mind.

To get started, I recommend you choose a short book. One that you’d love to equip your mind with.

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