How to Remember What You Read

Not too long ago, after one of my lectures on Islamic History, a student observed that I never use notes to teach and asked, “How do you remember it all?” It’s a perennial question for graduate students: how can you possibly remember everything you read? In that moment, my response was, “I just do.” Well, in fact, the narrative I tell in each lecture took years of preparation and repetition. The material we cover includes topics that I didn’t know just a decade ago. The more I thought about that interaction with my student, the clearer it became that my lecturing style has a lot to do with my ability to remember information. That skill is not an innate gift. It comes down to how I read, how I learn (remember), and subsequently, why I teach the way I do.  

The way I read is effective for me. It helps me be productive, get through a lot of information, and remember most of it. If you’re struggling with preparations for comprehensive exams, writing lectures, or consolidating information into a paper or dissertation chapter, try integrating some of my techniques with what you’re already doing.

Four Reading Tips

Cursory Skim: The first thing I do before I start reading any text – regardless of the text’s length or type – is to look through the document to see how it is broken up. By looking ahead, I get a sense of how the author has constructed the book or article. Knowing that an article is fragmented into half-page sections or three-page sections lets me get into a rhythm of reading. This is particularly useful for difficult texts because it helps keep me from giving up. If I’m strugglebussing through a particular section, I know that it will end soon, and I’ll be able to take a breather or revisit the section again later.

Notes and Summation:  I rarely highlight my texts. I just don’t see the point in having big splotches of neon in my books. Instead, I usually underline names and dates, write marginalia, and use an asterisk or double-asterisk for info that I think is important. More critical to this reading process, though, is the fact that I go back to my underlines and marginalia immediately after finishing a section or chapter. I make sure that I have a solid grasp of what I have just read before I move on. Once I am done with a chapter or an article, I write a summary at the beginning of the text. It’s usually just three or four lines answering future Auggie’s questions: What is this article? Is it useful? Does it “converse” with other articles/books I’ve read? Is this author trash? Does their argument hold up?

Master Your Inner Narrator: Everything I read is narrated in my head by Stephen Fry. I don’t know why. I don’t particularly like his voice, but it could be because I watched a few too many episodes of Jeeves and Wooster as a kid. In any case, pay attention to your inner voice as you’re reading. Is it your voice? Is it someone else’s voice? That inner voice forces you to read slowly, so it’s important to learn how to master it. Mr. Fry, in my case, sounds out every word and literally tries to narrate the text to me. I find that for texts that are particularly difficult, Mr. Fry comes in handy because he slows me down, and I pay attention to the words/concepts in front of me. But if a text is easy to get through, there is no reason for Mr. Fry’s narrative voice reading the text to me. I have learned how to shut off my narrator’s voice when I read. It makes for much quicker reading. With novels, book reviews, or redundant articles/books, Mr. Fry can sit in his chaise longue and enjoy a Chardonnay while I quickly make my way through the text. If I stumble upon something complicated, I slow down, summon Mr. Fry, and continue reading. 

Speak with Someone: Part and parcel of having the ability to recall information is repetition. After reading an article or chapter, I call friends, write messages on social media, talk to my partner, or even baby-talk with my kitteh. Yes, it’s awkward to randomly say, “Oh, I just read this thing about why Russian land reforms were crucial to ending serfdom in the 19th century,” but it fills a few minutes of conversation AND it reinforces the concept in my head. Undoubtedly, the person I’m talking to will ask a question about the topic, and if I can answer it, I feel like I “know” the subject well enough to move on. If I can’t answer them, I earnestly say that I’ll look up a subsequent article to find out more (usually to their chagrin).  When I’m not in the mood to talk with anyone, I look like a nutjob walking up and down my living room or bedroom having an elaborate conversation with myself about a subject, section, or chapter I just finished reading. Simply going over the content of a text during a silent conversation with myself reinforces the idea, and during these internal dialogues, I am able to pinpoint nuggets of information that I need to revisit.

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