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Improving Reading Retention - InsertNameHere - 02-22-2016 04:45 AM

Years ago, a friend of mine told me that if he had the ability to choose one superpower, it would be infinite memory - to never forget anything he saw, did, or read. I think he had the right idea. If you read the biographies of great men in history (Teddy Roosevelt and Winston Churchill come to mind), a common characteristic among them is that they were often voracious readers. The importance of reading is no great revelation to those of us here, but I'm often left wondering how to best reconcile the reading habits of men like Roosevelt and the superpower that my friend envisioned to retain one's reading. How can we read in volume while maximising our retention of what we read?

I've seen a lot of guides to address the former aspect (how to build lifelong reading habits, speed reading techniques, etc.) but fewer that discuss the latter. I also find that focusing on reading a lot, quickly is not conducive to deep understanding. Moreover, my experience is that higher education today does not promote good reading habits. With a few exceptions, gone are the days of universities encouraging young men to sit down with great works of the past, engage with them intimately, discuss the amongst one another, and take part in the ongoing Great Conversation. My university days have been filled with academic articles or only short extracts of books, and such a volume that deep reading is almost never an option - we are encouraged to skim, extracting only the necessary information for a presentation, paper, or exam before bouncing on to another reading. Although this may be a useful skill for professional life, it's not conducive to building good reading habits for personal development. My level of reading retention has probably decreased at university, and building it back up is what I want to address here.

The first piece of the puzzle is completely internal, and has to do with focusing all of your attention on the reading at hand. There's a lot of good information out there about what you can do to improve this skill (meditation, mindfulness exercises, isolation from distractions/unplugging, etc.) so I'm not going to touch on it. The other side of the equation is external, how you interact with what you're reading, and I've seen less information about this. The two best approaches I know of are Mortimer Adler's active reading techniques and the practice of maintaining a locus communis.

Adler outlines his approach in his 1940 How to Read a Book. A solid summary of the book can be found here:
He elaborates four levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. The ideals we should strive for in our reading for personal development are the latter two, analytical (actively asking questions of a book, using it as an absent teacher) and syntopical (taking the understanding from one work and making connections with past reading or experiences to build new understanding, greater than the sum of its parts). Adler offers some practical advice to building these skills, but consistently hammers home the message that deep reading is a difficult skill that takes time both to learn and to perform. One of main techniques he suggests is to chart out the ideas you extract from a book, building an outline of the author's thoughts as you go along. This easily feeds into the next practice, the locus communis.

In past centuries, the locus communis or commonplace book was standard practice for all thinking men - think of it as an intellectual journal used to keep track of one's ideas and revelations. Unfortunately this has fallen out of practice, ironically just as technology has made maintaining one easier and more intuitive than ever before. I was introduced to this by Ludvig Sunström of the blog Start Gaining Momentum (highly recommended if it's not already on your blogroll), and I have to say that this is the one thing that revolutionized my life more than any other in the past year. He's done a far better job of explaining the idea behind it and offering ideas of how to implement it than I could, so rather than re-invent the wheel I strongly encourage you to read his thoughts:
General idea:

I've been using OneNote for this, which I like because it synchs across my PC and phone and stores all the data on a cloud drive. I track my daily use of time, nutrition, to-do lists, workouts, game notes, random ideas, personal vision and strategic plan, as well as building a database of my readings. This is where Adler's advice comes in: if you're already using his active reading techniques and outlining the thoughts in a particular reading, it's simple to put that outline into your commonplace with pertinent quotes or your immediate reflections/reactions below. OneNote does a superb job of this because of the way it lets you organise your notes: within a notepage you can create a collapsible, hierarchical tree outline, and you can group notepages by a particular author (or whatever criterion you choose), and then notepages or groups of notepages by theme or genre. Afterwards, retrieving the ideas you gleaned from a particular work is extraordinarily easy.

The main downside to these two techniques is that they are time-consuming. Active reading, manually outlining the thoughts in a book is a slow process, and then copy-pasting (or manually transcribing, if you're reading a physical book) into the locus communis takes even longer. This starts to impinge on the volume of reading one is capable of, to the degree that I think this isn't the optimal solution - it needs further refinement and tweaking.

Let's share notes on this. Have you guys given thought to how to optimise your reading retention, rather than immediate comprehension or overall volume (or, indeed, how to balance the three)? Have any other techniques proven successful for you?

RE: Improving Reading Retention - johnbozzz - 02-23-2016 10:16 AM

I'm not sure if this will be of help, but I am an auditory learner, so if I hear something, I will remember it forever, but not so much if I read it. Beginning in college, I started listening to audiobooks far more than reading the material, and even when I played them on 2x speed, the message stuck with me.
Also, if there is a document I need to read for work, I'll paste it into Word, change the font to a generic sans serif (Helvetica, Verdana, etc.) and I'll recall far more than if I were reading a Times New Roman or other serif.

RE: Improving Reading Retention - highcardace - 03-03-2016 04:11 PM

I much prefer visual content over reading. I am currently learning some programming, and I couldn't get past the first 20 pages of a Java book, but I'm almost done watching 20+ hours of videos on Java. I also remember much more from a video biography/documentary versus reading. However when I need to read something, I always take notes summarizing every paragraph or page in my own words, skipping nothing. This technique has helped me tremendously preparing for exams in college for example. Also it is important to hand write these notes, as I have noticed that I retain information more by hand writing as opposed to typing them.

RE: Improving Reading Retention - Demandred - 08-26-2016 09:09 AM


I like both of OPs ideas (outlining ideas and the commonplace book). Another good idea is to do a mini-review of the book. Something like this:

As far as your objection that the process is time-consuming... So what?

You might not be able to read as many books as you'd like.

Big deal.

Here's the thing: I've read over 2000 books so far - and maybe 30-40 of those changed my life and helped me become wiser. Granted, half of those two thousand were epic fantasy/science fiction ones, but the point remains.

Don't read more books - read better books.

The sad fact is that 99% of the books out there are pure garbage - and I'm not even talking about fiction/chick literature.

Almost any book in the self-improvement/business/etc. field is a rehash of an older, better, more complete book. Just think about how many Think and Grow Rich rip-offs are there.

I would rather read one great book a week than three lousy ones.

So, with that out of the way, what are those good books we should read?

I think that you can't go wrong with anything on this list:

You should also read books that will help you advance your career. For me, those would be books on direct response marketing and copywriting.

There are hundreds of books on these topics, yet only 20 or so are going to give me enough knowledge to put me in the top 10% of my field.

TL;DR: Read less books, but of higher quality.

RE: Improving Reading Retention - Kaligula - 08-27-2016 12:16 AM

If you aim just to store your readings, so to say, then onenote seems to be fine. However, if you wish to preserve your associations too, then the card index system may be helpful, like the one of Niklas Luhmann. It is an interesting system as it is not primarily based on categories but your own trails of thought...

RE: Improving Reading Retention - Мортен - 08-29-2016 10:08 PM

The link you posted Kaligula did not show since you needed to subscribe to see it. Was it similar to this system?

If not then I would be interested to see what it's about since commondplace books rock!
I have a commondplace book going and it adds alot of value to my life.

RE: Improving Reading Retention - Kaligula - 08-30-2016 04:22 AM

(08-29-2016 10:08 PM)Мортен Wrote:  The link you posted Kaligula did not show since you needed to subscribe to see it. Was it similar to this system?

If not then I would be interested to see what it's about since commondplace books rock!
I have a commondplace book going and it adds alot of value to my life.

Morten, usually there is some free limited access at Financial Times, and it does mean you can have a look a couple of times per month for free...
The system is similar but it is a bit more complicated than the one used in your link; the key is arbitrary alphanumerical indexing. For example, if a card has number 5, and I have some associations/remarks, a follow-up card will have signature 5/1/ if that are new but connected thoughts, a kind of horizontal axis, or 5a if still following the theme of 5, a kind of vertical axis. Then again, you can get 5/1/a or 5a/1 etc.
Additionally, there is some general theme index for numbers, eg. '5' let's say, is World War II.
Following endlessly just one subject, you could say everything about world: this is the crux of the riddle that you could code the entire knowledge with the help of one proportion x/y which would give us a needed prime number; the sequence would code everything. As a lover of Borges, I find it endlessly fascinating....

Personally, on the practical level for me the biggest challenge is how should I go on with such a system... 1) on paper 2) with the help of some database software....At the moment I think about UltraRecall. Well, more and more I think that it should be all three: 1) first, notes on paper (paper is somehow the best for fluidity of thoughts) 2) transcribing my paper notes to some database 3) scanning original notes to a second database as a backup.
The point of all that is that during rewriting/transcribing new thoughts come.
But it is a lot of work, yes. And that is the biggest problem... one should have a personal secretary...Wink

RE: Improving Reading Retention - slppryslp - 09-08-2016 11:27 AM

adrenaline is key to memory. Youll find that people with high anxiety(and high heart rate) have extremely good memories. This is probably evolutionary, because the things that caused your heart rate to rise were generally the things you needed to remember the most-fighting fucking hunting, running away. This of course has its own negative consequences of heart disease and higher rates of illness. Anything that stimulates adrenaline like coffee or adderall(ritalin) affect memory.

RE: Improving Reading Retention - ElFlaco - 09-08-2016 12:19 PM

Some of the comments here reference "learning styles". As cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham explains in this video, numerous experiments demonstrate that learning styles do not exist.

That is, given a specific piece of subject matter to teach/learn, it is NOT the case that one group of students, the "visual learners", will learn more successfully if it's presented visually as compared to auditorily, whereas for a different group of students, the "auditory learners", the results are reversed. There is no such thing as a "visual learner", an "auditory learner", a "kinesthetic learner", and so on.

Learning styles theory is hugely popular with educators because it calls for specialized teacher training, consultants, professionalization of the field, etc. I once went to a workshop where teachers were instructed to group their students into rows in the classroom by learning style and teach the material differently to each row. Yeah, right. Some people are better learners than others, and some material is best learned via a particular mode (visually, auditorily, etc.) by everyone, but there are no special snowflakes.