To read is “to travel without moving an inch,” remarks Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake. Along with Bob Dylan, who was later awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, David Bowie is an artist known to be an avid reader. While addressing the extensive series of questions in the inquisitive Proust questionnaire, when asked what is his “idea of perfect happiness?”, Bowie replied with a single word – reading.
But what is the point of reading if you can’t remember what you read? Nothing is more infuriating or depressing than investing your limited, leisure time in a book and eventually forgetting what you read. Personally, confronting my neglect burrows inside me an interminable well of guilt and repentance, whether it is the evanescent imagery of modern fiction or the pensive wisdom of Wittgenstein. Resuming the reading of a neglected book, whose plot has now eluded you, is as good as reading a new book from an arbitrary point in the middle.
As we’ll find out, owing to the brain’s architecture, reading non-fiction can be more strenuous than reading fiction. This is disconcerting for passionate readers of any branch of scientific writing, political and literary essays, commentary and the latest fad in non-fiction – self-help books. This is why ardent proponents of non-fiction, such as Bill Gates, adhere to the methods explained in this article in order to retain the content of each of the 50 books he reads every year. Yes… Bill Gates reads 50 books almost every single year.
Identify What Interests You
Interest is the foremost motivation to pick up a book. The problem of remembering the content of a book or article that fails to captivate your interest comes later; a lack of interest will prevent you from completing the book in the first place.
People must identify what is truly enthralling from what popular opinion might suggest. When I began to read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it wasn’t because I was intrigued by Victorian drama and our vestigial prejudices for materialism, it was because it is regarded as one of the most well-written novels of the past two centuries. However, I found it to be one of the drabbest novels I have ever set my eyes on, or, as Virginia Woolf so perfectly described my thoughts, as she so often does: it is “sedative to the verge of somnolence”.
Similarly, a pious man or woman may find Sartre’s philosophy or the essays of Christopher Hitchens outright repulsive. The preface alone will be enough to dissuade him from finishing the book. The lesson is – it’s okay to give up, regardless of whether the book is “culturally important”. When it comes to non-fiction, curiosity and learning novel concepts are primarily driven by what we already know. The drive to feed this curiosity then motivates you to read more.
One study found that students who were average readers, but passionate about football, illustrated greater comprehension and retention of content related to football than students who were adept readers but less knowledgeable about football. Alison Peston, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience explains that “when you’re learning something new, you bring to mind all of the things you know that are related to that new information. In doing so, you embed the new information into your existing knowledge.”
Yes, you can put down your Ulysses or Infinite Jest that you are tragically trudging through. Instead, pick up what truly interests you, whether it is obstetrics or Stephanie Meyer, who am I to judge? (Doesn’t mean I won’t, though.)
While researching for this article, I watched dozens of YouTube videos featuring Warren Buffet or Bill Gates talking, or rather gesticulating, about how they approach a difficult book, preferably non-fictional. One common aspect I could discern in these videos is that they always wear clothes that have no labels on them. However, I also learned that they make sure to jot things down.
Making notes is requisite not only for the creative process, but also for the learning process. Oliver Sacks’ notebooks were replete with jottings and scribblings made by pens of multiple colors. He would leave no corner untinged. Similarly, making notes, circling, underlining and especially drawing, say, an analogy, on a page can lead to greater understanding and retention of the content inscribed upon it.
Research has continually shown that students who tend to organize their work rigorously and take notes while studying are more likely to remember what they have studied and consequently score higher in their exams. This is because comprehending the text is a prerequisite for compressing it and registering its gist below the margin. Taking notes is not merely transcribing verbatim; it is about processing information and encoding it in our memory. However, because one cannot jot down everything, one must decide what is important for himself.
Contemplate and Connect
Contrary to the objective of the first point, many authors believe that one should read books that he despises. They believe that grappling with scruples and hatred might confer on them a new point of view. Or, for the better, animosity might consolidate your views, and cause you to cherish more of what you already value. Essentially, authors and psychologists suggest that readers must contemplate the ramifications of the concerned text.
Readers must immerse themselves in a book, view the events with their very own perspective and determine how it connects to their preferences. However, the architecture of our brain makes non-fiction impervious to our attempts at intrusion. Elements of fiction are easier to retain because while reading them we empathize with the characters – fiction puts us in their shoes. This causes us to access episodic memories, memories that register an autobiographical account of our lives. These memories are charged with emotion. It is the dreadful or exalting sensation of these emotions and not the content itself that draws an indelible impression on our mental slates. However, because the text is so intricately connected to the emotion, their memories become inseparable. On the other hand, non-fiction tends to access semantic memories, memories that are devoid of any emotion. This would include rational or logical claims, such as 2+2 = 4 or “profit is the difference between selling price and cost price”.
Compare the latter with The Great Gatsby’s: “I’m paralyzed with happiness.” The mental images that fiction paints are exceptionally lucid (a function of the quality of writing, of course) compared to the images drawn by non-fiction. These brief clips act as mental cues for entire films. The flickering images of non-fiction are stored temporarily in our short-term memories. These memories are approved for long-term access if and only if they are transitioned to our long-term memory. If, however, this transition is stifled, the memories become liable to fade away in less than a few days.
This transition for dreary, semantic memories can only be accomplished through vigorous reuse and reapplication. As these memories are retrieved, again and again, the neuronal connections or pathways corresponding to them become progressively stronger. This strengthening facilitates their consolidation and consequently, their retention. Such strengthening is evident in daydreams where the scenes become more intense and vivid as we keep replaying them. This has profound implications on education — 2+2 = 4 is an entirely new concept for an infant, but constant reuse and retrieval has cemented this result permanently, as though it had always been there.
One way to reapply what you have learned is to explain it to someone else. Teaching is a crucial aspect of Feynman’s technique – a four-step guide to learn any new concept from scratch. Furthermore, the more intellectually distant the crowd is, the more acutely your knowledge is tested (“teach me like a five-year-old!”). The quality and degree of fidelity are positively correlated to your understanding of the concepts. The technique also encourages metaphorical explanations, as the use of metaphors is emblematic of thorough conceptual comprehension.
Mood, Fatigue and Distraction
Regardless of your interest, reading can feel like drudgery if the reader is not in the right mood. Our mood also happens to be gravely affected by fatigue. We have learned that emotionally arousing content is more memorable, but fatigue can often numb your emotional feelers and hinder your learning process. Emotion and attention are like the pedals of a bicycle and fatigue can often disrupt the motion of one, thereby disrupting the motion of the other as well. A lack of sleep and excess stress are the major causes of fatigue, both physical and mental; scientists recommend reading when more relaxed or rested. Furthermore, your mood is also affected by your environment; again, this is subjective – while William Faulkner could read and write in noisy cafés, Derek Parfit could not.
Lastly, distraction is the biggest threat to reading today. Even though the phenomenon is highly subjective, one can risk the effectivity of light reading by rejoicing in occasional scrolling. However, surrendering to distractions during deep reading is a colossal gamble. Chances are that you might have learned absolutely nothing. While light reading would include lighter, recreational novels, deep reading would include esoteric subjects whose elements are deeply connected and require brief periods of persistent attention.
The Fear-of-missing-out syndrome has inflicted almost everyone who owns a smartphone. Occasionally, or, for gregarious individuals, constantly, the phone jiggles, a bell tings and a vertical blind begins to drop from above. As you open these blinds one by one, the incoming rays of light vaporize from memory whatever you were currently attending to. This is particularly bothersome for readers who seek their content online. To resolve this, there are numerous reading apps that enable you to save content for offline reading. What’s more, the saved content is often devoid of nagging ads (in the paid versions, of course) beckoning you to a round of 8-ball or poker.
Online content also sparks the debate about what is more lucrative, reading on paper or reading on a screen (also read typing vs writing). Personally, while I pride in my pile of books like trophies on my shelf, my Kindle allows me to carry all of them everywhere. However, portability seems to be the only advantage for online or e-readers. The constant flickering of screens is known to be more physically and mentally taxing. The divided attention might make for poor comprehension. Moreover, researchers believe that a page’s tactile nature provides a sense of progress, an aspect crucial to learning. However, the evidence against online reading or at least e-readers is not conclusive – the debate has yet to be settled. The point remains that one must read, read anything, for it remains the most sincere, authentic and efficacious way to learn and to travel.