How To Read (Because You’ve Been Doing It Wrong)


I’ve been on a writing about reading/writing kick this week. It’s not on purpose (we’ll cover that next week in How To Never Run Out Of Ideas), but it’s interestingly relevant right now. Seth Godin declared he’s no longer going to write traditional books and then Tim Ferriss wrote a “rebuttal” of sorts stating that non-fiction print books are still king.

But what really spurred this article is I was having a chat with Henri a few days ago and the topic of reading came up.

Specifically we were discussing taking notes and the Kindle and how it makes highlighting easy (and much quicker than pen/paper).

Tangent: I have a lot of issues with publishers of Kindle books, but the product itself is phenomenal. Publishers, like record companies, seem to be run by idiots.

We were also discussing how when we take notes we never really go back and read over those notes. There’s also the issue of losing the notes. This all defeats the purpose of taking the notes, doesn’t it?

But rereading notes is important for retention of what you just read. Double edged sword!

I’ve been known to read complete books and not remember reading them a year or two later. 40 pages into reading something (for the 2nd time): “Wait, I’ve read this before!”

Part of the problem is I read a lot (tore through 5 or 6 books in the past 2 weeks). But a bigger part of the problem is I’ve never had a successful note taking / re-reading / retention strategy.

Until now.

I’m sharing this with you because I feel like if I’ve had a problem with reading retention then you may have the same problem as well. And if you’re like most of us, you probably also don’t have a phenomenal strategy for note taking.

1) Stop Taking Notes

It never worked for me and I don’t know many people who do it well. What I do instead of taking notes is take a few minutes after a reading session to think about what I read. Let the thoughts formulate as they will and mull them over.

It sounds very basic.

But it’s not easy for the simple fact that most reading sessions are probably not intentionally stopped, but instead, they’re interrupted. Which brings me to …

2) If You’re Reading Something You Want To Remember, Set Aside Time For It

If you’re reading something just for fun and it doesn’t matter to you whether you remember much of it then this doesn’t pertain to you. :)

If you’re reading most non-fiction books (95% of what I read) you’re probably reading them to learn something. In this case, it’s important that you’re focused on the reading, not on e-mail, your cell phone, or whatever else might come along.

If you’ve set aside 30 minutes for reading, read for 25, and spend the last 5 minutes simply playing it all back in your head.

3) Highlight

The beauty of the Kindle.

Whenever I come across a passage that I think is killer I highlight it. Kindle remembers this highlight for me and I never have to think about “where did I put those notes?” The less you have to think about here the easier it will be to stay focused. Highlighting is a quick procedure that takes a few button clicks, barely interrupting your reading experience.

4) Review

When you’re finished reading the whole book, immediately go through all the highlights. Kindle, again, makes this very easy. This will probably take less than 10 minutes, but it will help immensely in imprinting everything that’s fresh on your mind deeper into your brain.

If you’re the type of person who takes weeks or months to read one book then you’ll want to review your highlights more often. I finish most books in a few days, and I only read one book at a time, so everything is tightly focused and fresh on my mind.

This sounds like a sales pitch for the Kindle. In a way, I guess it is.

Not only has the Kindle revolutionized the way I buy, read, retain, organize, and travel with books, but it has revolutionized the publishing industry in general. And although I’m pissed I can get a new one for half the price I paid for mine, I’m happy that lower prices means more people will embrace the inevitable future of publishing.


  1. “40 pages into reading something (for the 2nd time): “Wait, I’ve read this before!””

    I’m so relieved I’m not the only one who does that! I will definitely try out these tips… or at least a Kindleless spin on them. I’m still reading print for now ; )

  2. “most reading sessions are probably not intentionally stopped, but instead, they’re interrupted. ” – A very keen observation you have made here and good strategies which I will try and work with.

    My biggest interruption is after reading say 10 pages, I realize I zoned out somewhere after page x; or I start nodding off. Grrrr.

    I will add to number 2 on your list: 2a) If it’s something important that you are trying to absorb, don’t try reading it right before bedtime.

    Thanks, Karol, have a great day!

  3. Heh, number 2 is basically the one that gets me every time. I have serious ADD and especially on the net will all the hyperlinks, I will go off on tangents and forget to read the entire article all the way through.

    So that’s almost a 5) Finish reading what you’re reading before you start reading something else :)

  4. Awesome post as always. I started reading again, trying to broaden my knowledge. I was lucky enough to get a Nook for my birthday and it’s great! I always hated getting interrupted while I’m reading until my friend told me to throw some headphones on. Even if you don’t listen to anything people are much less inclined to come up and talk to you.

  5. I’ve been relearning to read since I left school and slowly grew into more and more of an active reader. Books really became more interesting when I started scribbling what *I* thought back into the book.

    It made what was once a boring one-way street to a bustling exchange in both directions.

    Your post has got me thinking though: I can totally forget a book and then get into a conversation about it and have all the details rush back – and only _then_ do all the details stick.

    It makes me wonder how we can leverage that. Write a short response after each chapter in conversational form? Read on the buddy system and always have someone to chat with about what we’re reading?


    • Chatting about a book definitely always helps me with retention. Kinda like how teaching someone something helps you learn it even better. But it’s not exactly easy finding people who are reading the same book as you. Although I guess that’s why book clubs were invented. :)

      “Write a short response after each chapter in conversational form?” – I like this idea. Maybe summarize each day’s reading session in a few sentences? Kindle also allows note taking, but I only use the highlighter. :)

  6. I remember in school, one of my teachers discussed some research which showed that the act taking notes – of physically writing a thought which you want to remember – had a profound, measurable effect on your retention of it, but that actual *review* of those notes had little or no measurable effect.

    Basically… take lots of notes, but then throw them away.

    • Thanks Randy! That’s interesting. I’ll have to experiment with using the Kindle’s note taking feature and see if it does me any good. So far, my system is working phenomenally.

      • I was going to mention something along these lines. I write things down all the time, not because I’m going to look at it again, but because that’s how I remember things. I remember when I read, but not what I hear, so what I write down, I’ve seen twice. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written down grocery lists and forgotten them, but still buy everything b/c I can see the list in my head. If I had never written it down to begin with, I wouldn’t remember half of it. I think this is why I can remember phone numbers easily and not people’s names – we tend to write one down.

        • Thanks Elizabeth. That’s interesting about the grocery lists. I don’t often shop with lists unless I’m making a new recipe. That said, I can see how picturing the grocery list you wrote can help.

    • @Randy ~ I didn’t know this, but it makes a lot of sense to me. I’m an avid note taker, but I probably go back and review less than 1% of the total notes that I write. The notes aren’t about information retention. I’m not concerned with that at all either in note taking or in reading. The value of both activities is in how it changes you as you are doing it. It’s similar to what Karol said about pausing ever once in a while to mull things over. Writing those thoughts down brings them into even greater focus. Steve Pavlina also said for many years he’s been an avid journaler, but seldom ever reads any of his journals. The value of journalling isn’t so much the record, but the lucidity that you attain through the act of journaling.

      • Thanks Lach. There’s a massive difference between journaling and note-taking. Comparing them is like comparing a car and a horse. That said, I do see the value in note-taking, but not reviewing the notes.

        • Not the way I take notes. I don’t write summaries, rather write to explore the ideas and my reactions too them, which is not wholey unlike journaling. It also seems to be close to what you’re suggesting. I only compare them based on their Socratic benefit.

  7. Thanks Karol for this interesting post

    I am struggling with the same thing these days, I actually started a speed reading course that also stressed the importance of concentration and review.
    Still too much info and too many distractions :(

    I actually noted that when doing tweets, mails, IM in batches twice a day (original taken from the power of less), I can read and absorb twice as much!

    I started to take notes as an experiment. It helps me to remember, but I will definitely try your 4 techniques, see if it is more efficient.


    • Speed reading takes practice, just like anything else. You won’t get good at it overnight. That said, I don’t speed read anymore. It was always exhausting to me.

      • It is very hard, especially cause it is a 180º turn from what you’ve been learned since childhood. I will keep practicing but I think when you dedicate time and get rid of clutter, you can read up to 2 or 3 books a week, even if your speed mediocre. Thanks for sharing all this interesting stuff @ your blog

  8. @Jack

    I have a tip that may help you focus on your initial article without losing the tangents you want to go on. When I’m reading an article with hyperlinks, I cut & paste any hyperlinks I want to follow to a Word (or Notebook or whatever) document, then continue reading the article. This way I get the article finished and I know I can still follow all the hyperlinks from it that I wish.


    • Yeah lately I’ve been trying to middle-click (that is, open in a new tab) all the links, which open in the background but stay focused on the article I’m on. It usually only works when I am actually focused on being focused (not a joke).

      Oddly, as much as I’m on the ‘net, I had never seen the link that Karol posted above (the Focus Manifesto). It was a great read.

      Appreciate the tip! :-)

  9. I do the same thing Randy suggests with the notes- take notes but don’t review them for most things I need to remember.

    I don’t regret buying my kindle when I did- I have had months of reading on it which has saved me money on buying books and time- not having to show up at the library to pick up books. Plus space- space on my bookshelf and space when traveling- bus, costa rica, waiting in lines…

    • Interesting! Thanks Jenn. I will see if I can get into the flow of note taking naturally, without messing up the flow and focus of reading.

  10. I went to Montessori school through junior high. Kids in those programs are taught to use visualization as a tool for improving their reading comprehension.

    For example, say you read a sentence that says “90% of all dogs have long tails.” Taking a moment to visualize a picture associated with that sentence (e.g. 100 long-tailed dogs sitting in a row with ten short tailed dogs lined up at the end; or a pie chart showing 90% red space and 10% blue space) makes a connection in your brain that can help you remember and understand what you’ve read. Especially since everyone’s visualization will be different, tailored to how each person’s brain is already wired.

    For some specific reading material this might not work — but I found this method generally gave me an edge all through high school and college. In comparison, the memorize-and-regurgitate reading methods taught in public schools fail miserably for many students.

  11. I might get one I’ve had three but sold them. I just don’t like that once you but something like an ebook you’ll never get your money back. It loses 100% value once you buy it.

  12. Karol,

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post. Whether you take notes as Randy does or not as you mention, the key point is to focus, at that moment in time or after in reviewing what you read. As Randy mentions, it’s not the notes themselves, but the action you take with the reading. The discussion reminds me of the Dick Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis in the language acquisition literature, which says that language learners will have a better probability of acquiring those things that they notice (i.e., be aware of, focus on).

  13. I should probably get myself a Kindle – but its another gadget to carry around and I already think I travel with too much.

    The problem I have at the moment is not being able to re-read a book. Because I can only carry one book at a time, it consequentially has to be left behind at each stop on the road. While this does make brilliant marketing (I leave little message inside each book with my URL), I can never go back a look over a passage.

  14. Some cool advice – I’ll be using some of these techniques!

    I tend to use conversation with other people as a way of retaining information from books. I go with the idea that attaching an emotion to a particular piece of information helps the brain to fuse that information into a bright memory.

    So, by reading a section of a book in one particular reading session and then reflecting on its content (with notes!), before establishing how I feel about that content (excitement, pride, anticipation, joy, nervousness, funny, etc) goes some way to helping me to retain the very best of the books I have read. Then, by discussing the content and how I feel about it with someone (face-to-face), I’m more likely to retain the information.

    If the content doesn’t inspire, excite or spark off any other intense emotion in my mind – it makes sense that it may not be worth retaining…. what do you think?

    • Thanks Lee. “If the content doesn’t inspire, excite or spark off any other intense emotion in my mind – it makes sense that it may not be worth retaining.” I’ve never thought about that, but good point!

  15. This advice came realy handy. I just received 5 books, one of them a suggestion from you “Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion”. I never took five minutes to review my readings in my mind, we should teach this simple thing to kids. It´s great that I´ll try that from now on.

  16. I like the highlighting idea. I’m an audio-book kind of guy myself, so I’m trying to figure out how I can use that technique. The Audible app allows for bookmarks, so I can emulate highlighting by saving a bookmark when I hear something good and then listening 2-5 minutes before the bookmark location.

    Does anyone else listen to audio books? Any other suggestions?

    • Audiobooks seem way too cumbersome for highlighting. I think Audiobooks are conducive to note-taking though. That said, I can’t listen to audiobooks. I don’t pay attention.

      • Yeah, I find myself easily distracted with both forms of reading… I like what you have to say about the Kindle, and maybe for the next three or four books I read, I’ll use the Kindle app (I have an iPod Touch, but not a Kindle) to try out highlighting. Thanks for the suggestions!

      • I always felt the same about audiobooks, Karol.

        Then I started importing them into Audacity and increasing the tempo by 100%. At first its a bit weird to hear someone talking so fast but you quickly get used to it. I’ve found it to be one of the most immersive ways to read a book.

        It’s amazing how just speeding it up makes it so much more captivating – it doesn’t give your brain any chance to let in other random thoughts.

        It’s also pretty awesome to get through a book in 3 hours.


  17. Weirdly I find taking notes to be incredibly helpful. When I read nonfiction, it’s often something I may want to incorporate into a paper someday. So I note enough to cite from and write up the relevant points. I find it hard to remember exactly enough from scientific papers not to need notes. Then again, if I find a book worthwhile, I tend to read it twice and take notes on the second read-through. I should be thankful I read quickly.

    • Thanks for sharing Val. Yeah, if you’re writing papers that’s a different story. I’m not in school anymore and I don’t take notes for papers … although I went through a forest of paper in the old days. :)

  18. Haha, ok I must admit that I found a bit of joy in this post:-) I guess it’s always nice to hear that others share the same issues with retention at times.

    I was recently reading one of W. Buffett’s books and used the Kindle and Kindle iphone app. I agree, the highlighting is AWESOME! It also shows what others highlighted most often, which was cool and kinda bugged me at the same time:-)

    Great tips as always man!

  19. Most of the papers I write aren’t for school. I’m practicing, I guess. I’m one of those horrible people who will write papers even when they aren’t assigned. It’s a chance to logically lay things out. I’ve discovered since leaving high school that I actually like writing, just (no offense) not your type. (I like reading your type)

  20. You really have my attention now! Yesterday I had a conversation with my sister about the Kindle, and whether you can take notes on it AND whether it might resolve the very issue you write about herein. Very cool Karol. Thanks!

  21. Great ideas, all the way around!

    While I do love digital eBooks, I’ve so far been too much of a fan of old school paper-in-hand to go with devices such as the Kindle. But I do think that they’re very cool, and could see going that route at some point down the road. It’d definitely allow me to take more along to read on my travels!

    I am an avid highlighter as well. One thing I usually do in addition is to make note of some of the key points [and their page(s)] inside the front cover of the book. That way, I can open just the cover and immediately see my own little table of contents, referring me to what I found most important.

    Thanks, Karol!

    • Yes, yes, everybody loves the way print books feel. :) The Kindle feels better after the initial transition period. It’s lighter, easier to read, easier to turn pages, and more convenient.

      I do like the idea of writing on the inside cover of a print book, but the Kindle highlight feature is essentially the same thing. :)

Comments are closed.