Reading is one of the key ways we learn new things. And while it’s easy to pick a book up and turn the pages, it’s harder to actually understand and apply the lessons.
Let me break down a few points that will help you get the most out of reading after you finish a book.
First, if you’re talking about non-fiction or reading to learn, you should be taking notes while you read. I do this in the margins of the book and in the front and back covers. Sometimes I’ll also pull out a sheet of paper and do it there (this is called the Feynman Technique and could be the most helpful thing you learn to cement knowledge). However you do it, you need to keep yourself engaged and not read passively. This is how you improve on the awful reading retention most people have.
Second, when you finish a book, put it down altogether for at least a week. Get a little distance from the material, so it feels fresh when you return.
Third, pick it back up. Go back through all of your notes if you feel it was a “good, but not great” book.
But if it was better than “good”, re-read the whole thing or at the very least, re-read all the parts you thought were spectacular.
Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.
I have found myself agreeing with Schopenhauer more and more over the years.
The book doesn’t change after the first read, but you certainly do.
Once you’ve read it once, you have a mental structure of the book built, a blueprint of its contents; now read it again, and fill in the structure. But only do this with truly excellent books; life isn’t long enough to do this with every book.
Don’t forget to take notes the second time through as well, while you read.
Finally, when you’re finished, if you’ve taken notes inside the book, use the front or back pages to create yourself a little index of the most important stuff you found. (Do this by flipping through your marginalia.) This will make for easy reference later on, and force you to think about what you found important.
Another strategy is to write your notes up either physically or on your computer and save them away in a file. I know people who have hundreds of these files, immediately searchable and easily reviewable.
What’s the point of all this? To become an engaged, skeptical, learned reader who doesn’t just own books physically, but mentally. This takes more time than most people are willing to invest, but if you want to be different, you have to learn how to act differently. That’s the whole idea behind Farnam Street.
Shane Parrish feeds your brain at Farnam Street, a site that helps readers master the best of what other people have already figured out. If you want to work smarter and not harder, I recommend subscribing to The Brain Food Newsletter. You can follow Shane on Twitter and Facebook.