Imagine you board a plane, take your seat and find that next to you is sitting your favorite writer. This is your opportunity to have a conversation with him and to learn from him firsthand. You are hoping to get a tip or two from him to improve your own writing. But he is so engrossed in the book he is reading that you dare not interrupt him.
He finishes a chapter, closes the book, and you half-open your mouth to introduce yourself when he pulls out a sheet of paper and starts scribbling on it. You narrow your eyes to read his scribble but stop before it begins to look too intrusive. After about twenty minutes, he places the paper in a folder, looks at you, and smiles. He knew you were watching. You feel embarrassed but couldn’t resist commenting, “Capturing the idea you just got?”
“No,” he responds, “I was summarizing what I just read.”
“You mean from the book you were just reading?” you ask incredulously.
“Yes,” he replies, half-smiling, “Always. It is the only way to get my learning deeper and also have something to refer to when I need it in the future.”
This incident didn’t happen to me, but it did happen to one of the Farnam Street blog readers. While sitting next to Rober Cialdini on a flight, he watched the famous author pull out a sheet of paper and write a full-page summary of what he had just read.
While both reading and writing are the bread and butter for writers, I have found there is one habit that outweighs both, and that is — taking notes.
I stopped taking notes after university.
I was a ferocious notes taker. Then I stopped. There was no need for taking notes for anything other than scribbling a few details at work meetings. All the reading was for pleasure. I wasn’t going to take an exam on the books I read, so why bother.
But then I didn’t remember what I read in a book any more than what I had for lunch two days ago. If I wanted to repeat something interesting I read in a conversation, I fumbled. The idea that was so clear at the time of reading was not clear at all at explaining.
Internet spoiled me further.
Everything was just a click away. I was using Google instead of my brain to retrieve information. On top of that, I copied stuff from the internet and saved it on my computer, never to reread it. To date, I have thousands of articles stored on the hard drive and extra storage I have bought for this very purpose.
Although there is nothing wrong with using technology to aid our memory as our brains can’t hold all that information, I missed out on the side benefits of note-taking. Three side-benefits I can list here are:
1. Idea generation
1. Reading not only introduces us to new ideas but it generates them.
Most of my good ideas come when I am reading. It is as if the passive activity is, in fact, stimulating a part of the brain where the ideas reside. As soon as we relax with a good book, and mind becomes oblivious to the surroundings and goes into another realm.
Reading makes us think. But thoughts are like bubbles; they disappear as quickly as they form. If I don’t capture them as soon as they appear, they are gone.
Reading makes us think on a different level too. The book I am reading at the moment is on memory research. I am no neuroscientist. The theories I am reading in the book have generated so many ideas that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise.
Coming up with ideas is one thing; writing them down so that I can use them when the time comes. That is why I don’t start reading until I have a pen and a notebook in hand. Pencil to underline the interesting passage, pen, and notebook to capture ideas and to summarize what I read in my own words.
2. Summarizing helps retain information.
Most people don’t remember what they read as soon as they finish reading a book. They will recommend the book but can’t tell you why it is a good book. Even if you ask, “Can you tell me one thing that was interesting in the book?” their usual response is, “There is more than one thing. Read the book.”
“Tell me one.” you press.
“I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just read the book.”
But clearly, they don’t remember anything. Or if they do, they can’t express it or explain it in their own words.
As you summarize, you are directing your brain to commit the new information to the long-term memory. Especially if you write by hand. There seems to be a special connection between writing by hand and memory vaults. Notes written in a notebook stick better to memory than the notes typed on a keypad.
The time you will take to summarize will not go wasted on another account.
3. By summarizing you learn the ability to express yourself
There is no point in having the knowledge if you can’t express it. Ideas and concepts need to be expressed in words, spoken or written. A person who says he understood the concept but cannot express it usually hasn’t understood.
Summarising helps you to test your comprehension and give your brain a chance to assimilate the information before you continue reading. In his book, The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills, Daniel Coyle writes:
Research shows that people who follow strategy B [read ten pages at once, then close the book and write a one-page summary] remember 50 percent more material over the long term than people who follow strategy A [read ten pages four times in a row and try to memorize them].
We are drowning in the ocean of information.
Too many books, too many videos, and far too many podcasts and audiobooks. And if you’re like me and love to learn, there’s no such thing as too much information. And yet, that information monster does bite. We start to read or listen, and we can’t keep up. Well, I couldn’t keep up at all. Yet notes-taking on top of that, where will we get the time?
You don’t have to make notes about everything. We don’t need to commit everything to memory. Most of the reading has to be for pleasure; otherwise, we will stop enjoying reading and dreading it.
But wouldn’t it slows down my reading.
It definitely does. Today, for some reason, we are in a race to read more and more and to understand and retain less and less. I have started resisting the pressure to read more. Even Henry Miller advocated for reading less. In his book, The Books in My Life:
One of the results of this self-examination — for that is what the writing of this book amounts to — is the confirmed belief that one should read less and less, not more and more…. I have not read nearly as much as the scholar, the bookworm, or even the ‘well-educated’ man — yet I have undoubtedly read a hundred times more than I should have read for my own good. Only one out of five in America, it is said, are readers of ‘books.’ But even this small number read far too much. Scarcely anyone lives wisely or fully.
By reading less and savoring the book I am reading, I am getting much more out of it. The book I am reading at the moment, Diving for Seahorse, is a fantastic account of memory research. It took me weeks to finish it because I have to stop every few pages and take notes. I have already drafted two articles based on what I learned.
How about you? Are you reading too much and retaining too little. How about introducing the habit of note-taking back in your life.