How to Retain What You Read

I love to read non-fiction. If I don’t watch myself I end up buying books faster than I read them. And because the new books are generally more appealing than the older ones, I soon end up with loads of quarter-read and half-read books lying around.

Or course there is nothing inherently wrong with switching between books like others flip between T.V. channels. But if you’re goal-driven, it can drive you crazy that you read all the time but rarely finish a book. And when you do finally pick a book back up after a hiatus, most of the information on those pages before the bookmark is long gone from your little grey cells.

And if the occasional book does hold your attention enough for you to read it straight through, you’re faced with another problem. Even the day you finish it you’ve probably already forgotten the majority of the content. After a few months or years, you may find yourself enthusiastically recommending the book to others, but when they ask why you liked it so much, you’ll have a hard time coming up with anything but the most vague answer.

For example:

Friend:“I’ve decided to bite the bullet and see if I can learn how to trade stocks online.”

You: “Ah! That was me a couple years ago. You should really check out How To Make Money In Stocks by William O’Neil. It’s a great first book…”

Friend:“Cool, thanks… uhhh, what did you like about it?”

You:” Ah… uh… well… he has this helpful pneumonic for picking stocks called CANSLIM. Let’s see, the C stands for… hmmm… actually I don’t remember what it stands for, but the part of the book I liked were the tips on using technical indicators from reading stock charts.”

Friend:“Anything in particular?”

You: “Sure! … gosh… something about 50-day moving averages and most stocks historically only rise a certain percentage above the 50-day before dropping back down. Or something like that – I sort of read the book quickly. But it was really good & I hope to go back through it more deeply – which is why I still have my copy – but you can borrow it!”

The truth is, the book probably did have some great ideas that seemed original & helpful, which is why you remember your experience of reading it as so positive – but except for a few minor details, all you really remember for sure about the book is that you enjoyed it!

There’s a simple solution to the problem – but of course there’s a trade off. The trick is to use presentation software (Apple’s Keynote or Microsoft’s PowerPoint) to make slide presentations of the books as you are reading them.

Now right off the bat I’ll tell you that if you take pride in the quantity of books you read, your ego isn’t going to be happy. Creating summary slides of a book while reading it slows you down enormously as it can take you several months to get through a book.

What’s interesting though is that you develop a much deeper relationship with the book – the same as someone in graduate school has with a text that will be the basis of his Ph.D. qualifying exam, or the same as a deeply religious person has with her tradition’s sacred text. If you own a laptop you’ll probably end up taking it & the book along with you on several vacations and weekend get-a-ways.

And at the end of it all, you’ll get a real, lasting ego boost because of the following benefits:

(1) Of all your friends / colleagues who have read the book, you’ll undoubtedly understand it on a level far surpassing theirs. You’ll even find yourself correcting them and clarifying nuances.

(2) If you’re a little impatient & prefer to either read ahead or read the whole book first before beginning the slide creation process, as you go back through the second time to make the slides you’ll often find that you actually missed the point of certain paragraphs, or drew the wrong conclusions based on phraseology.

This happens all the time in conversations so of course it will happen while reading. May not seem so important at first blush, but if you’re reading to learn, say, a system of investing – you want to make sure you get it right. Ditto if you’re reading about something else like like meditation – you don’t want to spend years doing it wrong!

(3) You’ll have a set of notes that you can refer to any time in the future. So go ahead and increase your living space by selling the book online or donating it to the library – you have no more use for it.

(4) You can give small seminars to your friends – in fact you can teach the book to friends, fellow employees, your boss, etc. Obviously this can be extremely helpful if any of your non-fiction reading happens to be in the area of your profession.

(5) Because you wrote down what was important to you, in the language & style that makes sense to you – even if others have a copy of your presentation notes, they still probably won’t get the material as well as you do. So even after they get their grubby hands on your IP (and you know they’re going to ask for a copy of your slides), they still won’t know the material as well as you!

Obviously if you decide to do this, another benefit is that you’ll really start to scrutinize the books you buy. If you have an interest in Buddhism, you won’t be collecting numerous books from various authors, some of whom you don’t know anything about. You’ll buy one book on meditation from the most qualified person, say the Dalai Lama himself, and that book will provide enough material to learn, think about, and practice for at least a few years.

Or if you are into investing, you won’t keep collecting books from different authors, some of whom you don’t know much about regarding their education or investing track record. You may instead do some research online & find that there are/were a handful of guys from Columbia’s business school who are overwhelmingly considered to be the experts. Summarizing their books to learn their methods may take you a few years, but you’ll have a much better foundation than if you’ve read 30 different investment books over the same period of time, and promptly forgotten 98%.

Do you see what a discriminating reader you are going to become? You will become incredibly picky! One of the most important selling points of a book for you will be the author’s biography on the back cover – because if you’re going to read & make slides of a book on a particular subject you’ll first research to find out who is the most credible & popular – and you’ll only go for the best. In that way, you’ll be focusing on the bibles of each field of your interest, and only reading the ideas of people who you (and most others) deeply respect & trust.

Here are a few tips for the process:
• If a particular passage, or even entire chapter of the book you’re going through seems overwhelmingly obvious or irrelevant to you – there’s no reason to include it in your slides (unless you indeed plan to use them to teach the book to friends and/or colleagues).
• A scanner can be used to reproduce figures, graphs, and equations. Scan them, crop them, and insert them into your presentation. Feel free to make your own new figures by doing your own sketches quickly by hand and scanning them.
• Make sure you save often when creating the presentation, and make multiple copies of it once your done. Keep them on different computers or different disks (spatial diversity!). These will be so valuable to you that you’ll most likely really, really, really, not want to lose them. Even if you decide to keep the book itself.

In conclusion, our memory can often seem like an old laptop battery that discharges (forgets) not long after being removed from the power source (information). Even if you make the presentations as I’m suggesting, you’re still going to forget a lot of what is on them when you haven’t reviewed them for a long time. But the beauty is, a quick trip back through the slides now and then will be all that you need to stay fresh and to most likely stay THE most well-versed on each book’s subject than anyone you know or work with.

Give it a try.

4 thoughts on “How to Retain What You Read”

  1. Hi,
    I must say that this is a fantastic idea and it makes reviewing my notes(in slideshow format) to be a fun endeavor.
    Thank you for the idea.

  2. Hey Brad – thanks for taking the time to write.

    Nothing really burns a book into your brain like powerpointing it. It can take a long time but really pays off.

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