Category: Reading

The Most Effective Way to Retain What You Read

“Nothing so much assists learning
as writing down what we wish to remember.”
— Cicero

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One of the keys to getting smarter is to read a lot.

But that's not enough. How you read matters.

But reading is only one part of the equation. You need to remember what you read.

We're going to borrow tips from Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, and Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, to make our reading go deeper and stay with us longer.

Cialdini revealed a trick that he uses, to a reader of Farnam Street, who was kind enough to share it with me.

While on the flight to Omaha, he was reading. He took notes on the material itself, and every time he completed a chapter he pulled out a sheet of white paper and wrote a single page summary on what he had just read. He places the paper in another folder. This is how he gets his learning deeper and this also enables him to refer to summaries in the future.

This isn't the first time we've talked about this. 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].

But is there something more we can do?

Nassim Taleb says “Don’t write [a] summary, write bullet points of what comes to mind that you can apply somewhere.”

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Still curious? Check out my system for remembering what you read. And read The Little Book of Talent and Influence. Also, if you want to learn to read better, see The Art of Reading: How to Read A Book.

Haruki Murakami on Reading What Everyone Else is Reading

read what everyone else

We've all been there. At the bookstore trying to figure out what to read.

On one side of the store is the safe bet. The best-selling books that everyone else is reading. These are (generally) the mediocre books that time hasn't yet filtered for us. When time casts its shadow, most of these will fall away into the night. And yet we read them anyways. Why? Because one of the six principles of persuasion is social proof.

Not only does this often waste time and money but it gums our our brains. If we're reading what everyone else is reading it's harder to think differently about problems, decisions, or life.

This excerpt form Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami perfectly encapsulates a core truth about reading.

And so we became friends. This happened in October.

The better I got to know Nagasawa, the stranger he seemed. I had met a lot of strange people in my day, but none as strange as Nagasawa. He was a far more voracious reader than I, but he made it a rule never to touch a book by any author who had not been dead at least thirty years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust,” he said.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in contemporary literature,” he added, “but I don’t want to waste valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short.”

“What kind of authors do you like?” I asked, speaking in respectful tones to this man two years my senior. “Balzac, Dante, Joseph Conrad, Dickens,” he answered without hesitation.

“Not exactly fashionable.”

“That’s why I read them. If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. That’s the world of hicks and slobs. Real people would be ashamed of themselves doing that. Haven’t you noticed, Watanabe? You and I are the only real ones in the dorm. The other guys are crap.”

This took me off guard. “How can you say that?”

“’ Cause it’s true. I know. I can see it. It’s like we have marks on our foreheads. …”

Niccolò Machiavelli on Reading as a Cure for Boredom

Machiavelli

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) offered ruthless advice in his timeless classic The Prince, which was inspired on Xenophon’s Cyrus The Great: The Arts of Leadership and War.  Based on force and ruthlessness, Machiavelli offered advice on how to get and keep power. Unbeknownst to most people, however, Machiavelli also had a softer side.

In this December 1513 letter to Francesco Vettori, a friend of Machiavelli’s and the then Florentine ambassador in Rome, Machiavelli introduces us to his enthusiasm for reading.

When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them.

Reading is the best way to gain insights and develop understanding. It's the best way to learn how the world really works, as you can let time be your filter. This is why I read hundreds of books a year. It's also why I make friends with the eminent dead and try to learn from their wisdom. Charlie Munger echoes these sentiments, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time—none. Zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads—and how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”

Complement with thoughts on reading by Schopenhauer, Seneca, Thoreau, and Harper Lee.

On Reading and Books

On Reading and Books — an essay by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), who influenced some of the most prominent minds in the world.

Ignorance is degrading only when it is found in company with riches. Want and penury restrain the poor man; his employment takes the place of knowledge and occupies his thoughts: while rich men who are ignorant live for their pleasure only, and resemble a beast; as may be seen daily. They are to be reproached also for not having used wealth and leisure for that which lends them their greatest value.

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. … And just as one spoils the stomach by overfeeding and thereby impairs the whole body, so can one overload and choke the mind by giving it too much nourishment. For the more one reads the fewer are the traces left of what one has read; the mind is like a tablet that has been written over and over. Hence it is impossible to reflect; and it is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read if one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what has been read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.

His argument is more nuanced than it might appear. For example, he offers:

One can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.

And he indirectly argues for the ‘Great books' …

It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.

And my favorite part of the essay:

It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents. To desire that a man should retain everything he has ever read, is the same as wishing him to retain in his stomach all that he has ever eaten. He has been bodily nourished on what he has eaten, and mentally on what he has read, and through them become what he is. As the body assimilates what is homogeneous to it, so will a man retain what interests him; in other words, what coincides with his system of thought or suits his ends. Every one has aims, but very few have anything approaching a system of thought. This is why such people do not take an objective interest in anything, and why they learn nothing from what they read: they remember nothing about it.

And the best books, should be read twice:

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.

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Still curious? Pick up a copy of Schopenhauer's Essays and Aphorisms.

C.S. Lewis on Reading Old Books

“Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books.”

— C.S. Lewis

What did Steve Jobs Read?

steve-jobs

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”
— Steve Jobs

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I've always wondered just what influenced Steve Jobs thinking?

Walter Isaacson‘s biography of Steve Jobs provides an unprecedented look at not only Steve Jobs life but the books which influenced him.

For such a success, there is oddly only one business book on the list,  The Innovator's Dilemma. According to Isaacson, this book “deeply influenced” Jobs.

Reminiscing on his teen years, Jobs recalled “I started to listen to music a whole lot, and I started to read more outside of just science and technology — Shakespeare, Plato. I loved King Lear“.

Moby-Dick and Dylan Thomas‘ poetry were among Jobs' favorites as well.

During his freshman year at Reed, Jobs devoured books such as Shunryu Suzuki's “Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,” Chogyam Trungpa's “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” and Paramahansa Yogananda's “Autobiography of a Yogi,” a book Jobs would come back to and re-read many times during his life.

Isaacson writes:

Jobs found himself deeply influenced by a variety of books on spirituality and enlightenment, most notably Be Here Now, a guide to meditation and the wonders of psychedelic drugs by Baba Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert.

“It was profound,” Jobs said. “It transformed me and many of my friends.”

The one book that Steve Jobs had downloaded on his iPad was Autobiography of a Yogi, “the guide to meditation and spirituality that he had first read as a teenager,” Isaacson writes, “then re-read in India and had read once a year ever since.”

Now compare this to what Bill Gates reads for fun.

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*adapted from Huffigton Post