Updated: Jul 31, 2020
I’ve read War and Peace and don’t remember anything about it. Not one of its story arcs or its central characters’ names (maybe there was a Pierre?). I’ve also read The Overstory, another door-stopper of a novel, but there I can describe for you how the intricate plot resolves itself and name each of its nine central characters. I can cite fun facts from the book—we share 25 percent of our DNA with trees—and quote some of my favorite passages: “She makes almost nothing, but life requires little. Her budget is blessedly free of those core two expenses: entertainment and status.”
Is The Overstory a better book than War and Peace? Not at all. One thing I do remember about Tolstoy’s opus is how much I enjoyed it. So why is one book so vivid and easy to recall and the other lost to that black chasm of my “memory dump”?
Because with The Overstory I had a different approach to reading, one that’s changed my life and made me wiser. It could do the same for you.
Let’s begin with how I read War and Peace, which is how I had to that point always read books: with an aim to finish them, and quickly. I’m a voracious reader. Have been for most of my life. I love the art of story, the rhythm of sentences, the provocation of ideas. For a long time I read books so that I could feed my curiosity and when I got to the end of one I thought What’s next? and started another.
I’m almost 40 now, and have never been one to count the books I’ve read or done some year-long challenge to read still more, but about three years ago I looked at my home library, and the hundreds of books stacked there, and pulled down some favorite titles. I loved Victor Hugo’s compassion in Les Miserables but realized I couldn’t recall a single anecdote of it. I loved James Baldwin’s writing but couldn’t recite any line from The Fire Next Time. Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens blew my mind but I could no longer explain why.
This was a problem. What’s the point of reading if I wasn’t going to remember anything about the book six months later? I thought there was something wrong with me: Do I have a memory problem? Am I stupid?
Thing was, this lack of recall didn’t apply to everything I read. I’d just published my own book and in the four years I’d researched it—poring over maybe 60 titles in English, French, Spanish and German—I could still recall, as I stood in my home library that day, large swaths of dozens of those books, even the thick academic tomes. What had I done differently? Well, I’d highlighted passages from those books, typed in Google Docs sentences and facts and ideas that I thought would inform my reporting, reviewed those notes as I structured my book, and then quoted relevant passages from the 60-odd titles where appropriate in my manuscript.
In other words, I’d put in the work. And that’s what I would need to do with the books I read for pleasure if I wanted any chance of later recalling why I loved them.
So I began to highlight fascinating passages from the novels or essay collections or biographies I read. Just highlighting didn’t help me remember anecdotes or sentences, so I created separate notes files and copied and pasted what I liked. This worked better and soon I developed a system:
When I read a physical book I’d write out or speak into a Google Doc the passages I enjoy.
When I read a book digitally I’d copy and paste relevant passages into a Google Doc or at least speak or type them into same.
When I listened to an audiobook I’d clip a passage I liked and add a note about why I liked it.
Regardless of the medium, when I finished a book I’d wait a week or two and then review the notes. That wait is key. With every book I read I want to begin to flush the memory of it out of my brain so that when I review the notes, I’m culling the ones I think are no longer relevant, or which no longer move me as they had when I’d copied them on first read.
I found I still had the same lust and curiosity to understand the world and the human condition and the English language, but now these urges were more focused. I went even deeper into books. They satisfied me even more.
I developed a mantra: Read fewer books. Read them more closely.
This approach transformed my life. I could suddenly recall with much greater efficiency and vividness the passages I loved—and if I couldn’t recall them word for word, I knew where to find them. My notes on my books became ever-more voluminous and soon I created a Notes of Notes document: passages that were the best of the best, in one more master file