Memorize an 'Entire' Book: Collecting the Important Parts

If you want to keep what you read, you have to collect it into your flashcard system. This is extra work. How do you flag the important parts of what you read, without turning reading relaxation into study time?

Occasionally, thinking people pause to ask themselves why they forget almost everything they read. The answer is simple. Personal reading is 95% relaxation.

You find a quiet spot, you open the book, and you’re gone, safe in a sanctuary. The river of time eddies around you, barely rocking the boat. Bliss.

Now perhaps you’ve decided that, nice as that is, it might be also nice to hold on to a few of those life-changing facts once in awhile. However, you still like reading, and the last thing you want is to lurch for a keyboard every five minutes.

If you’re studying, it’s different. Entering flashcards becomes a break. You read a bit, make some flashcards, and keep reading.

But for personal reading, you often want to read the whole book without braking for annoying tasks like flashcards, sleep, or breathing. So, here’s the key: mark the important points as you read. Don’t stop to make cards. When you finish the book, go back and use your marks to make cards.

ANNOYING DISCLAIMER: The following tips are mostly the result of my own experimentation. If you find a better way, let me know. I hope to find better ways myself. Side effects may include: improved retention, increased tendency to quotation, and insufferable fact-slinging at parties.

Tools of the memory trade:

  • pencils
  • small pads of sticky notes
  • book stand (use when entering flashcards)

Distribute a pencil and pad combo throughout the house, wherever you read. Once you open that book, if they’re not within reaching distance, you’re about as likely to fetch them as to pop up and get a cavity filled.

Mark the important points as you read

You don’t need to highlight or to underline important phrases. Simply mark important points with a quick dash in the outside margin. If a point spans multiple lines, you can make a vertical line instead. This is quick and easy. It doesn’t disrupt the flow of your reading, and it doesn’t disfigure the book for later readers. Perfect.

If you’re like me, you may also enjoy stopping to jot your responses or other notes in the margins. But this is optional. The key is to mark important points as you read them, while the information is absolutely fresh in your mind.

In general, don’t hesitate over whether something is really important, just mark it. We’re trying to stay out of study mode here. You can make a final decision later.

On the other hand, if you’re marking 5 or 10 spots per page, that could add up to a lot of cards. Some books may call for that. Many won’t.

Skip the highlighters (usually)

I used to use highlighters. Unless you’re a professional draftsman, the results can be dispiriting. The next time you open the book, you wonder if the previous reader was a manic kindergarten chimpanzee.

Also, if the paper doesn’t meet or exceed wedding-invitation-grade thickness, the lines bleed through the page(s).

Plus, highlighting forces you to hesitate a little longer to choose which words to highlight. And it’s permanent. And if you get too enthusiastic, the whole page gets soggy with emphasis.

On the other hand, if you love the splash of color, you could make dots and lines in the margin with a highlighter, instead of using a pencil. And occasionally, color coding can be useful to sort out dense, confusing information.

Use small sticky notes as bookmarks

Use the small sticky notes as bookmarks. Note the small. You want to get pads that would be absolutely useless for leaving someone a real note. Mine are 2” x 1.5”. You can get a big pack for a few bucks.

If you use bigger notes, they flap around like tire flaps. They get crumpled when you put the book on a shelf. They’re depressing. Laugh if you want, but these are the little details that can make the difference between whether or not you stick with this.

You want to bookmark your place every time you stop reading. Yes, you could use ordinary bookmarks (i.e., random scraps), but they fall out.

You can also stick a permanent note onto those occasional pages you’ll want to hop to again. This can include charts, illustrations, or summary pages. It’s a great way to flag information that is too dense to memorize (easily), but too useful to sink into the undifferentiated sea of pages.

What about library books?

Obviously, you can’t mark up library books. (I’ve read at least one author suggest that you can make pencil notes, then go through and carefully erase them all. Yeah. Maybe I’ll try that someday, when I get tired of sorting paper clips.)

Instead, I take short notes as I go. I jot the page number and a phrase. It’s enough to find the point again. If there will only be 20 or so points, you could flag them with sticky notes, I guess, but that seems wasteful.

Then what?

So, you finish the book. Instead of simply reading, you’ve left a breadcrumb trail through the forest of pages. You managed to do it without disrupting the normal pleasure of reading. Look at you go!

Now comes a little extra work. How do you turn those hints into real memories?

We’ll find out next time.