How to Never Forget Books You Read

By Nat Eliason in Learning

Published or Updated on Aug 17, 2015

What do you do when you finish a nonfiction book?

Do you:

  1. Put it back on the shelf so people can see how well read you are? (come on, don’t lie, I do too)
  2. Give it away to someone else / return it to the library?
  3. Remove it from your Kindle to reduce the clutter?

Or anything else along the lines of just moving on to the next thing as you would after seeing a movie?

If yes, then you’re missing out on a massive opportunity to capitalize on and retain the knowledge from that book.

Most of us read passively. We scan the information (frequently in between text messages and tweets) and hope that there will be a useful nugget or two that we can apply to our life.

But when we read like that, we walk away from the book with little actionable material and quickly forget everything we just learned.

What a waste! With the right method, you can treat nonfiction books as active learning opportunities, and you can build a system for yourself so that you never forget the important parts of what you read.

I’ve already talked about how you can easily read 100 books a year. Here is how to make the most of those books.

This is one part of a 7-part masterclass on teaching yourself anything. If you want the other 6 parts, you can get them for free here.

1. Find the Books

If you’re reading nonfiction to learn something or do something (new skill, fitness, meditation, etc.), then your book selection is very, very important.

The best thing you can do is to listen to the pros, not the masses. Amazon is an easy platform to game. If someone wants to buy fake reviews for their book (I swear I’ve never done that), then all they have to do is look around Fiverr.

‍3,300 people waiting to tell you how much they loved your book

Don’t decide based on which books have been “rated” the highest but focus on what the best people in whatever you’re trying to get good at are recommending.

If you’re not sure what they’re recommending… email them and ask! I’ve almost never been turned away when asking for book recommendations. People love giving advice.

There’s one way to make your selection even better, though: look for common denominators. If you want to get better at marketing, then find a few people who are pros at it, get their recommendations, and then see what books they’re all recommending. One person may have liked a useless book for whatever reason, but if they all have a couple books in common that they swear by? That’s a good sign.

With your initial list of books, it’s time to…

2. Read and Take Notes

With non-fiction, you can read FAST. Take some time to learn how to speed readand practice using those techniques non-fiction books.

Sidenote: Don’t do this for Fiction since the point there is to enjoy it, but for nonfiction it’s excellent for quick information absorption.

As you read, highlight the parts of the book that seem relevant or worth remembering. The easiest way to do this is to use a Kindle or the Mac Kindle Reader since they have quick highlighting features built into them.

But, if you prefer old school paper books (and yes, I recognize that “old school” here means ~6 years ago), then sticky notes or sticky tabs work fine too.

The more you read like this, the better you’ll get at separating the useful content from the chaff. Most (good) books follow the same logical progression used by philosophy and argumentation. You’ll start to identify premises, intermediate conclusions, and final conclusions as you read each new book, and will quickly realize what parts you can skip.

Now, once that book is done, don’t immediately take your notes out. Wait on that. Instead, go read a couple more books related to it (assuming you’re going deep in this field, otherwise just read any book) and start a list of books you need to “take notes from.”

I keep an Evernote note of all the books I finished and haven’t taken notes on so I can go back later and extract them.

Why wait before taking out notes? Two reasons:

First, the information needs time to settle a bit in your head.

You’ll put more of the info into long-term memory if you extend the time between your first and second exposure. Waiting a few days or weeks before re-reading the relevant points will help you remember it better later.

Second, you’ll be spending the time in the interim reading other books.

If the books are on similar topics, then you’ll find that some ideas are shared between them and others only crop up once or twice.

If an idea only comes up in one place, you can be a little skeptical of it. But if some piece of advice is in every marketing book (for example) then it’s probably worth taking note of.

Taking notes like this is also an effective way to select books to not finish or read less carefully. If you’re reading and not taking any notes, that could be a good sign that it’s not that useful of a nonfiction book. There are exceptions (10% happier, for example, doesn’t have a ton of takeaways but is wonderful), but in general an “educational” book that isn’t worth highlighting is a waste of your time.

Alright, you’ve let it sit and read some more, now it’s time to…

3. Extract Your Notes

Here’s the thing, though: don’t just skip straight to your notes and start copying them out. You’ll miss out on a lot of useful information.

Instead, skim the whole book quickly, stopping briefly at the points where you made notes. This way you’ll refresh the context of each note, and you’ll naturally pick up on other pieces of information surrounding it that you didn’t realize were important at the time.

Why? Because now that you have a high-level understanding of the whole book, you’ll understand how the individual parts fit into it, and might pick up on things you missed the first time.

Pull out all of the necessary bits and make notes wherever you like. I use Evernote again since then you can plug anything into your search bar in the future and find any notes you took related to that topic from any book.

Then, when you’re done taking the notes out of your book, just remove it from your list of books to take notes on!

You’ll have all of the useful information from that book to reference in the future, and you can combine these notes with your info from other books to get a more comprehensive take on the topic.

Wait, Do You Ever Use the Notes?

One question I always get when I tell people this method is:

“Do you ever actually go back and look at the notes?”

Yes and no. Sometimes I do, but frequently I don’t, and that’s a good thing.

What you’ll find is that when you use this method: carefully reading, highlighting, letting it sit, then going back and taking notes, you’ll remember 10x as much of the book as you normally do.

The notes are more a system for helping you identify and remember the most important parts of the book, and storing it in long-term memory through the process of transcribing it. Having a physical copy is just a useful backup.

So even if you’re never going back to the notes, you’re still getting a tremendous boost to your ability to retain the knowledge from the books.

Step by Step

To summarize, instead of just reading through a non-fiction book and laying it down to be forgotten:

  1. Pick your books based on what the pros recommend, not the masses
  2. Get better at speed reading to read your non-fiction quickly
  3. Highlight important parts as you go
  4. Finish the book and add it to your list of books to take notes from
  5. Let the book sit for a week or two
  6. Go back to the book, skim it quickly stopping at the highlighted parts, and take notes


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