Memorize an 'Entire' Book: Make the Good Parts into Flashcards

If you want to keep what you read, the first step is to collect the parts you want to memorize as you read. After you finish the book, you make those parts into memorable flashcards. Here’s how.

While you were reading the book, you marked important passages. Now turn back to page 1, and work your way through the book again. Look at all the great bits you marked!

You’ll probably be surprised at both how little and how much you remember. On the one hand, it may seem like you’ve already forgotten the whole thing. If you shut the book and try to summarize every chapter (or even list them), you draw a blank. That’s rather sobering, after several hours of reading.

And yet, as you look again at each bit you marked, you’ll often get a burst of memories. Suddenly the same mental images flash again, or the same cluster of associations. You may even remember where you sat as you read that part.

These unique parts are like GPS coordinates – you’re parachuting into wild, uncharted territories of your memory. With these hints, you rediscover your lost treasures.

Forgetting isn’t like throwing something out. It’s more like throwing it into a basement. Like, literally standing at the top of the stairs and chucking it into a dark sea of unsorted junk. In one sense, the memories are always “there.” You just need a way to find them again.

So now you make those memories into flashcards. With this custom set of flashcards, you’ll have the exact hints you need to keep in touch with the best parts of the book. Start at page 1, and work through the marks you made, page by page.

Feel free to prune

Don’t feel like every mark you made is sacred. Now that you’ve finished the book, you have a sense of the whole, a sense you couldn’t have on your first read. If something you marked now seems unimportant, skip it. You’re not required to make a flashcard.

Remember, this isn’t a poem. You’re don’t need to memorize every word. You get to choose which parts are worth keeping.

This chance to review your judgments is one of my favorite features of this method. However, if the book is extremely long (e.g., a textbook), you may want to stop and make flashcards every chapter or so, instead of reading all the way through first. The sooner you make the cards after you’ve read the material, the more likely you’ll catch and solidify the larger clusters of memories.

If the book is extremely dense, you may even want to make flashcards while you read. I’ve done this when it seemed like going over the book a second time would basically mean reading it all over again.

The danger is that you’ll make too many flashcards, because you don’t get that second look. At least you can always delete them later. Also, you should skim the book first, to get at least a rough framework for what you’ll be learning.

Choose the right memory tool for the job

Each bit you’ll memorize is different. Here’s where the rest of this site comes in handy. Different memory techniques work best for different kinds of information, and you’ll find these techniques explained on this site. If it’s a list, you might try loci, or an acrostic. If it’s a simple fact, you can probably use “cloze deletion,” which is a fill-in-the-blank card. The Titanic sank in the year [...].

When I’m working with books, cloze deletions are probably my favorite. They’re so quick. You don’t have to whip up a mnemonic. Just type in a short, clear sentence, and remove the bit you want to remember.

Keep flashcards small

Whatever method you use, don’t put too much information on each flashcard. You have a major conflict of interest here. While you’re making flashcards, you’re like a hunter with a boar at bay. You’re tired of circling it, jabbing at it from every side with a fresh card and a fresh angle. You just want to spear it and be done.

But when you’re reviewing the cards, it’s the opposite. A single, lazy, jam-packed flashcard will annoy you every single time. Even if you get it right, it’s not much fun heaving up that whole dead boar.

So cut your concepts into bite-sized bits. It’s more work as you make the cards, but you only have to make them once. Reviewing is forever.

Remember the book as a whole

We’ve only scratched the surface of what you can do with a book. Here, we’ve focused on saving the individual snippets. Often, I just want to keep the most interesting facts, anecdotes, and quotes. They don’t need to be arranged in any particular order. Once they’re in my head, my mind will “arrange” them by making hundreds of connections, connections I can’t even predict.

But if you also want to navigate the book as a whole, you’ll want to go further. You might memorize the list of chapters, using loci. Or make a visual map of the book’s key concepts, then add a flashcard to remind you to review the map.

So you’re really going to remember all this?

Yes you will! Once you’ve made your cards, they’re safe in your system. If you fire up Anki every day, and do your reviews, you’ll keep what you’ve read.

After the first burst of short review intervals, each card will sink into the background, and won’t appear as often. That means you’re really starting to remember it. You’ll see the card again and renew the memory when it would start to fade, but in the meantime, the memory is strong. It becomes part of your thoughts.

You can look forward to the exceeding satisfaction of suddenly thinking about what you’ve read. Your reading will no longer be mere relaxation, or mental snack food. It’ll finally make you grow.