Reading a good book can be a rewarding experience, but it can be frustrating when the information just floats through your head without sticking in your memory. Luckily there are a few methods that can really make a difference in retaining information. The bookworms at Stack Exchange provide some tips to help your Jeopardy game.
I like to read nonfiction books on various topics that I’m interested in, but I find that the information doesn’t really stick.
For example, I read a biography of Thomas Jefferson about a year ago and I can’t really remember anything about it, except that he was born in 1743. When I see/listen to authors that are role models to me, like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, they are able to routinely cite from books. I’ve even seen Hitchens quote a book, giving the page number as well, from memory.
I want to be able to store information like these people but, if possible, without reading a book more than once. What method(s) can I undertake to ensure I get the most possible information from a book when I read it?
Memory is built on three components:
A single one of these components can be enough to memorize anything. However, weaving the three components together is the most secure way to remember anything, once and for all. Let me illustrate each component:
When you are very impressed by something (an idea, a picture, a sound, a face, a text, a situation), the probability that you will remember it is much higher. For example, if as a child you were left alone lost in a mall for a while, you might remember the whole situation very accurately. Same with your book: if you are very impressed by something Thomas Jefferson did in his life, the chance you will remember this aspect becomes higher. The good thing is that you can increase the strength of this impression yourself while reading.
For example, you can stop reading one second and picture the situation in your mind, exaggerating some features of the situation in order to enhance the impression of your mental image, by adding violence, greatness, or anything to shock yourself. You can even add yourself in your mental picture, imagining Thomas Jefferson thanking you for your help or kicking your butt or anything memorable. This will make the impression stronger.
Also, you may enhance the impression of a text by reading it out loud—even very loud if your neighbors are okay with it. Some people are more sensitive to impressions coming from sounds (voice) than from the view (written text).
If you can link something you read to anything you already know, the probability of remembering it becomes even stronger—sometimes incredibly strong. For example, if Thomas Jefferson was born on the same day as you, you would find it very easy to remember this because you linked the data you read to something you already know for sure and will not forget. It is like tying something new (the data you read, Jefferson’s birthday) to a tree (a piece of data you know, your own birthday). That is why the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to learn more and more.
If you are very knowledgeable on a topic (like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris on literature), it becomes very easy to make strong links—you have many ropes and many trees. So learn more about the basics and about the context of a book and you will remember more.
If you read a book 10 times you will remember more. Same for anything, a recipe, a route between two locations, the lyrics of a song, phone numbers, etc. The more you repeat, the more you remember. When reading a book, if you do not want to read it several times, you can highlight a few parts that you want to remember, and re-read only those parts several times. You will remember these segments much better. And you will see that they will also help you remember the rest of the book.
Impress yourself with powerful mental images, make associations with what you already know (and make sure you learn the basics to start), and repeat this exercise several times. Work to become better at remembering and you will become better at remembering everything you want.