Of the books that you have read in full more than a year ago, how much of their content can you remember on top of your head right now? As discussed in the No Stupid Questions Podcast, we are more likely to remember how a book made us feel, where we bought that book, or even some special circumstance related to it (such as being gifted), than its actual main points.
While remembering plot points is arguably not important for books read for entertainment (the quote “I envy the ones who have not read book X, because they get to experience it for the first time” comes to mind), I would argue that the whole point of reading non-fiction books is to become more knowledgeable. This requires us, at the very least, to retrieve the facts we’ve learned and, hopefully, being able to articulate them with other facts we know or come to know.
Upon reading the How to Take Smart Notes book by Sonke Ahrens, which outlines the Zettelkasten method of note-taking for academic and non-fiction writing, and the Ultralearning book by Scott Young, which lays out the author’s principles for mastery of a given subject through intense effort and focus, I’ve come to believe that the most important thing to remember what we’ve read is writing.
As the research into deliberate practice by Anders Ericsson has shown, we’re terrible judges for how well we are learning something. We usually equate ease with performing well, so activities that require less effort, such as passively rereading, feel more productive than activities that require more effort, such as testing yourself on what you’ve learned. Systematic testing afterwards show that the former kind of practice, the effortful practice, performs much better than the latter.
I would argue that while reading through a 200-page book may feel productive, the upside afterwards, for which we set retrieval as the lowest bar, may be small, or smaller than it can be if we adopt some complementary techniques. By simply passively reading, we may fall prey to the illusion of fluency, which means that, while the information is still fresh in our minds, we feel like we master it.
The antidote to the illusion of mastery is, of course, testing yourself. But we can’t make this too hard (or we will likely end up not doing it at all or for long). The simplest form of testing is, after you read a chapter, to retrieve from memory the gist of it and the most important points for you, ultimately writing those down in your own words.
By retrieving from memory instead of looking up in the book we practice active recall, which doubles as a self-testing method and a way to strengthen our ability to retrieve that information later. If we fail to recall the main points of a chapter after we’ve just read it, we likely weren’t paying that much attention and we won’t be able to recall anything at all in the future.
By focusing on the points that are personally important to you, we ensure that we are not simply becoming able to summarize everything about a book (like a encyclopedia that can be looked up), but we are compounding upon our existing knowledge in ways that interest us and that are more likely to be useful for us in the future.
Finally, and arguably the most important, by writing down in our own words, instead of highlighting or copying quotes, we ensure that we are actively engaged in the concepts we are reading and we test that we are able to articulate those concepts in a coherent manner. By doing this, it is very hard to fool ourselves about our level of competency in that subject (or at least harder than it would be by doing all of this in our own mind).
So what do you remember from this blog post? How this may be important to you by shaping your actions in the future? Don’t skip writing it down. 🙂