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  • Writer's pictureAnda Bolojan

How to Retain More of Every Book You Read

When asked whether reading was essential to his success, Microsoft Founder and Billionaire, Bill Gates, replied:

“You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning. Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently…Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career.”

Like Bill Gates, we also know how important it is to read books, but we often struggle to retain what we read: How often do you spend hours reading or listening to a book, only to forget the most important ideas a few days later?

Retain more of every book you read

When we fail to remember what we read, we waste valuable time and energy. So over the past few years, we’ve experimented with different ways to improve reading comprehension and remember what we read.

Here are 5 of the best reading strategies we’ve discovered about that.

Strategies on How to Retain More of Every Book

1. Share What You Learn with Others (or with yourself)

One of the best ways to retain more of every book is to share ideas you’ve learned from books with friends, family, and colleagues.

Just like how humming a catchy song helps you remember the lyrics, sharing important ideas you’ve read to different people —including specific examples of how the ideas apply to you—will help you retain what you read.

However, if you’d prefer to keep your thoughts to yourself, you can challenge yourself to summarize the entire text in just three sentences. This constraint is just a game, of course, but it will force you to consider what was really important about the book.

Some questions you can consider when summarizing a book include:

  • What are the main ideas?

  • If I implemented one idea from this book right now, which one would it be?

  • How would I describe the book to a friend?

In many cases, you can find that you can usually get just as much useful information from reading your one-paragraph summary and reviewing your notes as you would if you’d read the entire book again.

But if you feel like you can’t squeeze the whole book into three sentences, consider using the Feynman Technique, created by Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman.

The Feynman Technique is simple: simply grab a blank sheet of paper, write the title of the book at the top, and then write down the important ideas from the book as if you were explaining it to an eight-year-old child.

If you can practice explaining the key ideas from a book in a simple way that a complete beginner can understand, you’ll improve your reading comprehension and remember everything you read.

2. Read Books You Can Apply Immediately

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

- Aristotle

One of the best ways to improve your reading comprehension is to read books that are relevant to your current struggles. For example, if you’re struggling to lose weight and stay in shape, you can read a book like “How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy”, and apply the key concepts instantly. This way you’ll accelerate your learning, because all five senses will be immersed in engaging with the new information.

Haven said that, not all books are written to be applied in everyday life. But when it can be, ask yourself this question: “What’s the one thing I’m going to apply after reading this book?”

By putting into practice what you read, you can retain what you read and bridge the gap between knowledge and wisdom.

3. Only Read Good Books You Enjoy

Eating is like reading. The more junk food you eat, the worse your health and body shape is. Likewise, the more bad books you read, the worse your knowledge base will be, and the harder it will be to remember what you read.

Too often, we start reading a new book because it’s highly recommended and popular. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good book. And more times than not, we beat ourselves up for failing to finish reading an average book.

A better approach is this: don’t bother reading any book that isn’t good.

In the book, "How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading", Mortimer J. Adler explains that “a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser.”

To sift the best from the average books, you could use these two strategies:

  1. Quickly read the table of contents to get the “gist” of the book, then skim over the first few paragraphs of the opening chapter.

  2. Open the book anywhere in the middle and read one full chapter. If you’re still hooked, it’s probably a good book to read back to front.

As a general rule of thumb, great books tend to be thought-provoking. They don’t just make you more knowledgeable, but also wiser.

And whilst bad books should only be tasted and good books devoured, great books should be chewed and digested thoroughly. In other words, great books should be read more than once. And that leads us to the next step.

4. Read the Great Books Twice

The philosopher Karl Popper explained the benefits nicely.

“Anything worth reading is not only worth reading twice, but worth reading again and again. If a book is worthwhile, then you will always be able to make new discoveries in it and find things in it that you didn’t notice before, even though you have read it many times.”

Additionally, revisiting great books is helpful because the problems you deal with change over time. Sure, when you read a book twice maybe you'll catch some stuff you missed the first time around, but it's more likely that new passages and ideas will be relevant to you. It's only natural for different sentences to leap out at you depending on the point you are at in life.

You read the same book, but you never read it the same way. As Charles Chu noted, “I always return home to the same few authors. And, no matter how many times I return, I always find they have something new to say.”

Of course, even if you didn't get something new out of each reading, it would still be worthwhile to revisit great books because ideas need to be repeated to be remembered. The writer David Cain says, “When we only learn something once, we don’t really learn it—at least not well enough for it to change us much. It may inspire momentarily, but then becomes quickly overrun by the decades of habits and conditioning that preceded it.” Returning to great ideas cements them in your mind.

5. Create Searchable Notes

Keep notes on what you read. You can do this however you like. It doesn't need to be a big production or a complicated system. Just do something to emphasize the important points and passages.

You can do this in different ways, depending on the format you’re consuming. You can highlight passages when reading on Kindle. Or type out interesting quotes as you listen to audiobooks, and transcribe notes when reading a print book.

But here's the real key: store your notes in a searchable format.

There is no need to leave the task of reading comprehension solely up to your memory. For example, you can keep your notes in Evernote. The reason some prefer Evernote over other options it’s because 1) it is instantly searchable, 2) it is easy to use across multiple devices, and 3) you can create and save notes even when you're not connected to the internet.

Of course, your notes don't have to be digital to be “searchable.” For example, you can use Post-It Notes to tag certain pages for future reference. As another option, Ryan Holiday suggests storing each note on an index card and categorizing them by the topic or book.

The core idea is the same: Keeping searchable notes is essential for returning to ideas easily. An idea is only useful if you can find it when you need it.


Books are much more than a source of entertainment. They are an investment towards your future self: a gateway to connect with and gain knowledge from the wisest people who are, and were once alive.

But more times than not we often treat books in a fleeting manner - reading in a hurry whilst multitasking and tossing them aside afterwards.

The uncomfortable truth is this: reading is only half the battle. The other half is reflecting on what you’ve read. As Philosopher, John Locke, once said:

“Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours.”


More to Read

  • How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading - Mortimer J. Adler, Charles Van Doren

  • How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking - Sönke Ahrens

  • Speed Reading: Learn to Read a 200+ Page Book in 1 Hour - Kam Knight


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