Personal Productivity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people wanting to improve their personal productivity. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I like to read nonfiction books on various topics that I'm interested about, but I find that the information doesn't really stick.

For example, I read a biography of Thomas Jefferson about a year ago and I can't really remember anything about it, except that he was born in 1743. When I see/listen to authors that are role models to me, like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, they are able to routinely cite from books. I've even seen Hitchens quote a book, giving the page number as well, from memory.

I want to be able to store information like these men but, if possible, without reading a book more than once.

What method(s) can I undertake to ensure I get the most possible information from a book when I read it?

share|improve this question
Those people quoting from books likely memorized that as part of a speech. It would surely be impressive if they could just pull random information out of their heads, but I seriously doubt that wasn't planned/prepared in advance. – jmort253 Dec 8 '13 at 1:46
It wasn't a speech, but a debate. You may be right, but I actually think he pulled that from memory. Hitchens is one of the most well-read individuals I've ever listened to. – Undefined Dec 8 '13 at 2:10
Develop genuine interest in the subject. If you can't than switch to subject that interests you. – Juzer Ali Mar 10 '14 at 19:11
@JuzerAli very unhelpful. There are few methods better for developing interest in a subject than reading about it. Also, what if I'm taking a class in that subject? Then I'm unable to simply switch to a subject that interests me - I have no choice but to learn the material. – Undefined Mar 12 '14 at 0:44

15 Answers 15

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Memory is built on 3 components:

1. Impression 2. Association 3. Repetition

A single one of these components can be enough to memorize anything. However, weaving the 3 components together is the most secure way to remember anything - once and for all.

Let me illustrate each component:

Impression: When you are very impressed by something (an idea, a picture, a sound, a face, a text, a situation...), the probability that you will remember it is much higher. For example, if as a child you were left alone lost in a mall for a while, you might remember the whole situation very accurately. Same with your book: if you are very impressed by something Thomas Jefferson did in his life, the chance to remember this part becomes higher. Now the good thing is that you can increase the strength of this impression yourself while reading. For example, you can stop reading one second and picture the situation in your mind, exagerating some features of the situation in order to enhance the impression of your mental image, by adding violence or greatness or anything to shock yourself. You can even add yourself in your mental picture, imagining Thomas Jefferson thanking you for your help or kicking your butt or anything like this. This will make the impression stronger.

Also, you may enhance the impression of a text by reading it out loud, even very loud if your neighbors are OK with it; some people are more sensitive to impressions coming from sounds (voice) than from the view (written text).

Association: If you can link something you read to anything you already know, the probability of remembering it becomes even stronger, sometimes incredibly strong. For example, if Thomas Jefferson was born on the same day as you, you would find it very easy to remember this, because you linked the data you read to something you already know for sure and will not forget. It is like tying something new (the data you read: Jefferson's birthday) to a tree (a piece of data you know: your own birthday) with a rope (the same date). That is why the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to learn more and more.

If you are very knowledgeable on a topic (like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris on literature), it becomes very easy to make strong links -- you have many ropes and many trees... So learn more about the basics and about the context of a book and you will remember more.

Repetition: If you read a book 10 times you will remember more. Same for anything, a recipe, a route between 2 locations, the lyrics of a song, phone numbers... The more you repeat, the more you remember. When reading a book, if you do not want to read it several times, you can highlight a few parts that you want to remember, and re-read only those parts several times. These parts you will remember much better. And you will see that actually they will also help you remember the rest of the book.

In summary: Impress yourself with powerful mental images, make associations with what you already know (and make sure you learn the basics before you learn more), and repeat this exercise several times. Work to become better at remembering and you will become better at remembering everything you want.

share|improve this answer
Hi TRdH. Welcome to Personal Productivity SE. This is a great first post! – jmort253 Dec 11 '13 at 2:22
Great answer. I especially liked your mention of: the more you know about a topic, the easier it is to learn more and more. This explains why I can absorb programming topics so much easier than other topics. – Undefined Dec 11 '13 at 20:00
I would say the birthday example is more related to impression than association though. – Jeroen Bollen Mar 10 '14 at 17:45
How do you apply the first technique to technical books & abstract concepts? – mparnisari Aug 7 '14 at 2:35

The key to memorizing information is both practice and repetition. Since this was a debate, it's quite possible that the debater prepared for the event by examining the issue from all sides, which is a common technique used by debaters. Understanding the other sides of the issue helps prepare to rebut the other arguments.

So, if you know you are likely to get a question that will require you to refer to a specific piece of information, you can memorize this information by taking notes from the book. Write it down. Write down the name of the book, the page number, and the quote. Also, write down a possible question where your response would be to quote that material.

Additionally, according to "How to Remember Quotations", by, putting together mental images to help link words together can be an effective technique for memorizing a specific quote from a book.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

The above quotation from William Shakespear's ‘The Tempest’ is one of my favourites. So I think that the best way for me to explain the details of this system, is to demonstrate it on this text. The first thing that you need to do in order to memorise this quotation, is to take the key words from the passage. That is the words that contain the essence of the passage.

These are – we, stuff, dreams, made, little, life, round and finally sleep.

The author then suggests using the mental images to connect the words together. Whatever you can picture to help remind you of the words. Once you've memorized all of these keywords, the rest of the sentence should be easier to put together. This reminds me of grouping techniques used to help remember phone numbers.

In short, you don't have to be a gifted and talented eidetic in order to succeed. With practice, and knowing the right techniques, you can memorize these quotes and recall them when needed.

share|improve this answer

As a philosophy student, I often need to read multiple long texts and synthesise the most important information from them. This is different from reading a textbook, because textbooks are (usually) more dense than prose.

This is my strategy to gain information on a subject from books:


  • While you are reading, take notes. Short notes, just to remind yourself of what you've read. Key words, quotes that speak, etc.
  • After each chapter, rewrite your notes. Write at a higher level than the notes you took when you were reading. Because you now have all the information on a given chapter, which you didn't have whilst you were reading, these notes should be significantly different and more concise than the previous notes.
  • After finishing a book, rewrite your notes again. Again, these notes should be more concise, and at a 'higher level', than the previous notes.
  • Read some other books on the subject an repeat the strategy outlined in the first three bulletpoints.
  • After having read a number of books, we take it one level further; you will write notes on the subject of the books. Try to write down as much as you can from memory, but also use all of the (book-level) notes if necessary.


  • Write as much as possible about what you are reading. Write a blog, write book reviews, etc. Perhaps even make a Youtube video about your thoughts on the matter, if you're into it.
  • Debate the content of the book. If you have a blog, enable comments. While comments on blog aren't always of the highest level, to put it mildly, it will force you to engage with the material. If you are reading books on politics, perhaps join a debate club.

General advice

What's important in everything that I mentioned is that you create content, rather than merely consume content.

Also make sure that you spread out reading over a long period of time. It's better to read one book a week than to read five books in one week and then do nothing in the next four weeks. Spaced repetition is critically important; make sure that you keep engaging with the material in one way or another.

share|improve this answer

My answer is along the same vein as others, with a focus on repetition. Different people will learn best working with details/content in different ways, but the key is to work with the material.

By "work with the material" I mean that you have to immerse yourself in these details (reading, listening, sharing, discussing, summarizing, diagramming, writing) and eventually scaffold and present these details to others. You have to have familiarity with some of the details first, but to effectively summarize and present information to others you have a direct reason and application for making this information readily available to your conscious memory. Think about it... to explain it naturally to others, you have to practice communicating those details to others. Toastmasters illustrates this in practice.

If your sole purpose is to help yourself remember details, and time is no object, I would suggest the following approach:

  1. Before reading the book, read some reviews or summaries of the work you are about to dig into. This will set some perspective, and introduce main concepts that you can watch for as you read.
  2. Read the book from beginning to end, only "bookmarking" particularly memorable or noteworthy items.
  3. At a high level, note the main concepts you wish to recall or use.
  4. Treat each concept as a research subject and delve back into the relevant areas to dig out supporting details.
  5. Construct a synopsis, weaving together related details.
  6. Present, discuss and/or debate with others to practice recall of the details. Even if you only produce one final product or presentation, by that time you won't be an expert, but you will have this information in your conscious, working memory. The more you spend time working with the material, the more likely you are to make lasting memories.

Note: Like many things, your memory recall will fade over time if you don't actively reflect on or recall it. Reading your own notes will bring back details more quickly, in my opinion, because you actively constructed that information and the connections will be stronger than simply rereading the book/source material again or reading summaries or notes written by others.

share|improve this answer
+1 for Toastmasters – JOM Dec 16 '13 at 10:29

The best method I know of is to read something with the intent of teaching someone else what you have just learned. You will be amazed how differently you consume content.

share|improve this answer

This little summary helped me. How to Read a Book, Paul N. Edwards, University of Michigan (PDF).
The trick is to learn to watch out for parts with high information content.

My best experience is to connect this with something like a mind map.

share|improve this answer

Some people have a photographic or eidetic memory and remember everything they ever read. It's a skill you either have or don't and quite rare.

In this article, someone said Hitchens was one of those individuals:

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: 'I worked as an intern for him years ago. My job was to fact check his articles. Since he had a photographic memory and an encyclopaedic mind it was the easiest job I've ever done

For those of us who don't have that skill, trying to remember everything is simply an exercise in futility. Instead, have a vague idea of where you read something. If you know where to find a quote, you can find it when you need it. And I'm not talking about by page number. At least hope to know the book name.

share|improve this answer

I absorb information better if it comes in the form of the spoken word. Most books I read nowadays are in audiobook format. I also listen to text to speech sythesis versions of the books if the auidobook has not yet been recorded. I'll even listen to itunesU lectures, podcasts and vieo training courses.

If the item is interesting enough I will listen a few times over. I have a long commute so I am able to take advantage of long listening periods.

share|improve this answer

I read a lot of non-fiction books and i read it only once. I read it very slowly and imagine myself in that situation, which helps me remembering the people in the story, their quotes. I try to find the hidden meaning behind every quote they say so that i can apply those in real life when speaking to anyone.

share|improve this answer

Let me add one more technique, along with some tools, that echo @jmort253's core answer that revolves around practice and repetition: Spaced Repetition. I wrote about this in another Q&A here.

Essentially, you use an SRS (spaced repetition software) tool like Anki or Mnemosyne to enter what you'd like to learn and remember into what are basically electronic flash cards. Based on how well you feel you know the answer to a question when it's presented to you, the software will determine when next to show it to you again.

Personally, I used it to study for my last IT certification, and was amazed at the difference vs winging it. It reduced the time I needed to study, and pinpointed my weak areas.

If you're interested in reading some fantastic articles on SRS, check there out:

To dive even deeper, the LessWrong wiki has a nice collection of articles on spaced repetition along with a number of decks that you can import into Anki (an SR software).

share|improve this answer

I got a real improvement of comprehension after I've learned to use fast reading techniques. I read a chapter then I review it. During the reading I use a pencil to mark with a star what paragraph or sentence seems interesting. I use just one simbol. Many symbols doesn't help at all and I think it slows the reading process. In the review stage I read only what was marked. The next step consist in making notes with my own words.

From time to time I also build mind maps of the book that I've read. But is not always the case. Visualizing the mind map comprehension and retention gains a real boost.

share|improve this answer

Two small things I've learned when trying to learn from books

1 - Don't skip the contents pages

With non-fiction technical books, it can feel like the list of contents is just more padding at the beginning. When you're just starting the book and are keen to get into the meat of the text, it can be tempting to skip this bit. I've found from experience, that reading the contents pages carefully first creates a mental skeleton structure that everything else can hang off. Without doing this, I find I can dwell overly long on minor details early on, at the expense of more significant topic areas later in the book.

2 - Pick the best time of day

I'm very much a morning person, and I find that I can take in and retain all kinds of written material much better early in the morning, compared to the rest of the day. Work out what time of day is best for you, and try an get your reading done then.

share|improve this answer

Each time I read a book I want to be able to remember as well as possible, I take 2 hours to summarize its content, and to write the details on 1-2 pages. This way, I can read the resumé when I want later. Moreover, the fact that I have written it make me better at remembering it.

share|improve this answer

And you are likely to hate this one, but taking handwritten notes helps cement information in your memory. Stop just reading and do something active with what you read. Typing seems to be less effective because it engages less of your brain.

share|improve this answer
Why would I hate this one? – Undefined Dec 16 '13 at 1:25

A few ideas to test depending on your learning style:

  • Along your reading having a mind map with key items helping you relocate specific location, actions, facts, people etc.
  • A friend of mine is part of a reading club. It sounded to me like an activity for older people but she is 35 and she loved it cause from the discussions, this made you think about the book, remember stuff, make new associations of ideas etc, and also seeing how others perceived. If not a reading club, find someone in paralell reading that you can exchange with? (you can even create the system to find someone in the world reading the book in the same time to exchange once completed! then you sell to Amazon to make it a kindl feature and get rich so you can just read books :) !?) ahah
  • Recommending the book once you have read it because this will make you think about and name why you would recommend it and key things you took out of it, then you can talk about it with the person you gave it to and therefore refreshing it linking it to people around you.
  • Many online tools / apps exist to document your lessons learnt from readings ... most commonly, you can keep a journal of your readings focusing a few standard questions (ex: Date started / finished? Nb pages? what's the story about? what's the ending? Why did I like it / not like it?)

Hope this will give you some ideas! Happy reading

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.