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. This organizational technique has a long history. It’s called a commonplace book and everyone from Erasmus to Thomas Jefferson to E.M. Forster kept one. John Locke loved his so much he wrote an actual book about how to organize your own.
How do I know all this? Because I took notes on the stuff I read and reviewed the fascinating ideas. I learned that Abraham Lincoln once thought he was stupid because, like me, he read constantly but couldn’t recall books months afterward. So he started to write out passages from tomes he found intriguing. “I am slow to learn,” he said, “and slow to forget what I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel very hard to scratch anything on it, and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” I had Ryan Holiday on my podcast, whose book Stillness is the Key I took re-donk-ulous notes on, and afterward he told me he has a notes-keeping system somewhat similar to my own. Because of Ryan I began to read more Stoicism and discovered Seneca lectured on reading fewer books 2,000 years ago: “This reading of many authors and books of every sort may make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere.”
He’s right. The wisdom found within books has become my own. My days are lit by the insights from the world’s greatest thinkers and boldest writers. It’s inspiring and also a relief to have their guidance as I walk my path. The same wisdom, the same communion with great minds, is available to you too if you simply become more intentional with the books you read.
Our culture doesn’t reward that of course. Everywhere are life hacks to read faster, read more. The internet itself is a 24/7 argument to slurp up as much information as you can, because never in the course of human history has so much knowledge been available to so many people. But absorption is not digestion and to constantly feed is to fatten and distract your mind, and ultimately confuse it.
“It used to make sense to say information is power,” said Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari.
“But now we’re flooded with enormous amounts of information…In this age, clarity is more important than ever before.”
It’s a wonderful insight, so good I think I’ll re-read Sapiens next, so I can finally retain all the things I loved about it.
And after that maybe I’ll see again what Tolstoy is up to in his opus.
New to my blog? I'm an editor, journalist, and best-selling author. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.
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