It could be argued that the act of communication as relates to the written word is done when the author puts down their pen. But there needs to be two people involved in a conversation. If a message is sent but never received then it wasn’t effective.
So it is with reading. It is the end stage of the transmission of the message that the author wished to send into the world. The torch has been passed and it is now up to you, the reader, to process that message effectively. Here are a few techniques to ensure that you not only receive and understand the message, but retain it as well.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and state that if you can easily understand what you are reading then you are choosing material that is too easy. You are coasting.
You need to “read wide and deep”. Stretch your limits. Books hold the sum of all human knowledge and with them you can learn anything. Don’t limit yourself by only sticking to popular fiction or the like (although there is a place for that too!).
But if you are going to take anything from more challenging literature then your reading approach needs to change as well.
Focus – Reading above your level requires focus. This is an especially important skill in our current age of distraction. Our attention is fragmented like no other time in history and this has a knock-on effect to the rest of our lives.
Rebuilding your focus is like working a muscle; you need exertion and you need rest. Choose a book and set a schedule where you sit and read that book for a set amount of time every day for 30 minutes. Enough to challenge your focus but not burn you out. As time goes on your ability to focus will improve.
Scan before starting – If the idea is to pull information from a book then starting on page one and working through sequentially is not the best technique. You need to have an understanding of the books layout and what it’s all about; the key ideas.
So read the conclusions first. Look at the table of contents and figure out how the order of the chapters flow together. Flip through and read small snippets that catch your attention.
You are trying to get into the author head space. Once you have a feel for what the book is trying to tell you then you will be more receptive to the deeper arguments.
Read, don’t skim – I am guilty of this and I blame the internet. Articles and information online are presented in brief snippets, with short lists in bullet points to help you pick out the key features. We want our information and we want it now!
So when presented when a paragraph longer than some articles, the tendency is to skim through and look for key words to anchor to. The trouble with this is that you miss the thread of the main idea being presented. If you CAN skim through without missing anything then again you should be looking for more challenging material.
And make sure to stop and look up any words you are not familiar with. They were chosen for a reason and if understanding is your goal, then understand.
Highlighting and Marginalia – To be able to effectively pick out the key points later you need to highlight them somehow. You can underline sentences in a book or you can swipe with your finger when reading on a kindle (my personal favorite!).
The key to highlighting is to only mark the essence of the thought. Don’t color the entire paragraph yellow. We’ll come back to these highlights in the re-reading stage.
Marginalia are notes that you write yourself in the margins of the page. If reading sparks an idea then it must be captured immediately, before it fades. And the best place to capture it is right on the page that gave you the idea in the first place. If you’ve never written in a book before this might seem uncomfortable, but there is a longstanding tradition of this by successful authors. Remember that you are trying to learn something, so think of it like a textbook and mark it up.
If you read on a kindle then just add those notes electronically.
Reading through a book that you have just finished helps solidify the ideas learned. Memory is a funny thing and the fact is that if you don’t review it you will lose it. Assuming that you are reading to actually learn something and not just to pass the time, re-reading is a necessary step in cementing the ideas in your memory.
Some people recommend to let the book sit for a few days so the ideas can percolate in the subconscious before reading it again. I typically start the process the day after finishing the book.
Paraphrasing – Remember all those highlights you made? It’s time to revisit them.
This step is where everything comes together. You are going to pass back through the book and re-write the key ideas in your own words.
Paraphrasing is a powerful technique as it allows you to express ideas using your own unique vocabulary. This helps you to remember the ideas better because you are saying it in your own voice. Two methods of performing this step are as follows:
- Write a book summary – This is what I do. Starting at the front I’ll go through the book, stopping at the key points that I highlighted previously. These points are distilled into their shortest form and the techniques are summarized in my own words. When you finish you should have a summary of the books main ideas, in no more than a page or two.
- The Notecard System – A more involved system used by professional researchers and taught at universities. This requires a stack of 3×5 index cards, or if you want to really go deep then use multiple stacks of different colors.
With this system, you paraphrase a single point on each card. This could be a quote, a list, or an idea. You also capture the information of the book used as the source. This system has a few benefits over the book summary:
- The bibliography writes itself. If you are going to use the info for writing of your own then you’ll need to accurately quote your sources. This is built right into the system.
- The points can be reorganized any way you want. This helps when outlining your own work as you can mix and match across various references.
Re-Re-Reading – With your summary written or your stack of notes complete the final step to improving retention is to come back to your notes periodically.
Retention is improved dramatically through spaced repetition. When you start to forget something, then revisit it, the memory is strengthened each time. This is why having that summary available is so valuable. Once you have re-written the books key ideas in your own words you can essentially re-read that book in a single sitting and bolster your retention of the core lessons.
Blitz the subject – A final technique to help really learn something is to repeat the steps above on multiple books related to the subject matter. Blitz the subject by looking at it from various angles.
As you read the new books you’ll find that many of the ideas are repeated. This repetition not only helps to reinforce those ideas, but also reveal the trend of the core principles in that field. It also adds additional knowledge by revealing ideas that were maybe not captured in previous readings, or by phrasing things in a way that makes more sense to you.
Rinse and Repeat
You don’t need to be writing a research paper for these techniques to be effective. It may seem like a lot of work but by improving your retention and recall of what you’ve read you will actually be saving time in the long run. Take notes while reading and write your summary when you finish every book. Then re-read a different summary before starting the next book. Follow this procedure and you’ll find that true learning takes place.