The Secret of Remembering What You Read

When I started a memory blog, I focused on techniques. Today, I'm much more interested in _thinking_. Ready for the secret of remembering what you read? It's much simpler than I thought.

As you may have noticed, I’ve taken a quiet break from blogging over the last few weeks. Between the normal Christmas rush and the added excitement of promoting my Christmas-themed memory book, I decided I needed some time to think. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about.

I Used to Focus on Techniques

When I started this website years ago, I was excited about memory techniques. I’d discovered all these amazing mental gymnastics. They seemed like magic, yet they were still almost unknown.

Sure, the Internet already had plenty of memory sites. But no one seemed to be combining the techniques from the different subcultures. No one was using Anki flashcards and memory palaces and oral rhythms. Could this simple act of combination lead us to fantastic new heights of mental prowess?

Or, less ambitiously, could we at least catch up to our forefathers? Could we achieve the prowess considered “normal” back when being “educated” automatically included speaking more than one language?

This intellectual adventure had strong similarities to my earlier adventures into the world of Linux and free software. Once again, there were all these amazing tools, free for the taking, but no one seemed to know about them.

Did I Achieve My Memory Goals?

I had two major goals.

  • To memorize entire books by heart, e.g., a book of the Bible.

  • To remember the main points of what I read.

Have I achieved these goals? Yes and no.

Yes, because it turns out that both of these tasks are actually quite simple. I started out by using lots of techniques to memorize, and I’ve been gradually paring them down until it’s almost absurdly simple.

You can learn how to memorize texts by reading this series of selections from my book,, Christmas by Heart. These articles lay out a simple approach for learning a little bit of a text every day.

Longer texts might need a few additional techniques (emphasis on might). I’m planning a book on memorizing the Gospel of Mark that includes these extra techniques.

The Secret of Remembering What You Read

What about remembering the main points of what you read? It’s a big secret, but you can have it for free. Ready?

Think about it.

Seriously. Think about what you read.

Sure, there are different ways to do this, from mind maps to journalling to conversation to Anki cards. Each has different advantages.

But remembering is so much less about techniques than I thought it was. Years ago, when I brooded over my bookshelves, flogging myself for amnesia and retroactively wasted time, what was I actually thinking about? What I’d read? No!

I was thinking about me. My insecurities. My smart self-image dissolving before my eyes.

Of course I couldn’t remember what I’d read. I was too busy worrying about why I couldn’t remember it.

But last week, I finally read Blink, my Malcom Gladwell. (At the library, yesterday’s bestsellers are always checked in.) As in The Tipping Point, Gladwell darts all over the space-time continuum, from a wily general in Vietnam to a female trombone player auditioning for the Munich orchestra. It’s a crazy, fun book, and I read it with a blissful lack of any memory techniques whatsoever.

The next morning, I decided to try something new for my thinking half hour. I tried to write everything I could remember about Blink. Generally, if I reflect on a book, I can easily digress for a half hour on one or two points. But since Blink teems with anecdotes and details, I wanted to see how many I could remember.

Not much.

At first.

The Memory Magic of Waiting

But I waited, and thought. And after a long, awkward internal pause, things came back to me. At first, only one or two. But as I followed those threads into the labyrinth, I remembered more and more. I wrote and wrote and wrote, way past the half hour, and could have written more. All without a single glance at the book.

Now, this was the day after. If I don’t think about these things with some kind of spaced repetition, most will gradually fade.

But I’m amazed at how much I could remember just by waiting through the pause. I just needed to give myself time. I needed to forget my anxiety and wait.

Our brains are amazing, but unlike computers (or rather, very much like computers) they’re not always instant. Sure, we hate when the computer hesitates and we get the hourglass. (That’s a fascinating cultural choice, isn’t it, that we see a symbol for Time at the precise moment we hate waiting? Although Linux doesn’t use the hourglass much. I’m not even sure Windows does any more.) But we’re still willing to wait for our computers, because we trust that it will finish the task at hand. Maybe I’ll try extending the same courtesy to my own brain.

Have I achieved the goal of “remembering everything I read”? Of course not. But I’ve discovered that it basically comes down to thinking. I love the intricacies of custom Anki decks as much as the next geek, but for high-level thought, they may be more distracting than helpful.

Instead, I face a deeper challenge: making time to think. Going over what I’ve read, in a way that doesn’t make me feel like a test.

Of course, I wouldn’t bring this up unless I had a new, geeky idea about how to do just this. But I’ll save that for another post.

Now What?

I’ve learned a lot in the last few weeks, and I want to start writing here again and share it with you.

At the same time, I’ve realized that the best way for me to make time to think and remember is to write about what I’m actually reading, not about how to remember it. So, I’m deciding whether it will be relevant and helpful to chronicle my intellectual journeys here, or if readers like yourself would be happier if I started up my personal blog again at Bill Powell Is Alive. Your interest in remembering doesn’t necessarily extend to what I’m remembering.

I’ve also realized that I can’t commit to an article every day here any more. For now, I’m going to scale back to “at least once a week”.

That being said, I also need to try doing actual “blog posts” — you know, a paragraph or two with a link to something interesting. Everyone else does it, right? It’s a big Internet out there, and I have a bad habit of thinking that I can’t tell you about anything without doing a full-scale essay. Which leads to taking a long, unannounced Christmas break.

So, one real article a week, with a possible flurry of blog posts in between. How’s that sound?

Learning texts by heart is amazing, but I’ve got that pretty much solved (though I’m always open to suggestions). Going forward, I’ll mainly focus on the nebulous but near-universal desire to remember all this fascinating stuff we read. Thanks for joining me!

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