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  • Writer's pictureKelly Adams

Journey Towards Remembering What I Read

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Six books stacked next to each other on a bookshelf.

I've always been an avid reader, I've read hundreds of books so far, but I considered myself a "passive" reader. While I read frequently I couldn't remember what I read. I never felt like I absorbed any of the content, unless it was significantly memorable. This was especially true with books I read for school like The Great Gatsby or Macbeth, I don't remember much about the novels except for the basic premise, and that's because the novels are well known.

When I got my first Kindle I felt a bit more "active" in my reading. I began highlighting interesting passages and taking occasional notes. Over the next few years I would devour books, I could read through a book (or two) in a single night. I was a fast reader, but when someone actually asked me a week later what was the book about I couldn't tell them, even with my highlights.

Later on in college I began taking detailed notes on Non-Fiction books I felt had high value (excluding text books and assigned readings). I took notes on books like Quiet by Susan Cain and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. But I was mostly copying down the text word-for-word, even then I still felt like wasn't absorbing the information as well as I could.

About a year ago I read somewhere that reviewing your notes is the key to remembering them, so I made a reoccurring task in my task manager to review the notes I took on various books. But I would skim through my notes and check if off my task list without truly reviewing them. If anyone asked me what the book was about I couldn't remember off the top of my head, I would have to look at my notes.

And that was for non-fiction, my memory with fiction books was worse. I wasn't sure how to retain fiction books because I wasn't analyzing it as much as I did with non-fiction books.

I didn't know what to do with my problem, until I stumbled upon Ali Abdaal's Video, "How I Remember Everything I Read". In the video he explains seven levels that are along our path of trying to remember everything we read.

  1. Muggle - We read stuff but we're just reading it, we're not engaging in the material. We'll most likely forget it after some time.

  2. Squib - We're now highlighting or underling the things that resonate with us. We don't remember the text we highlight and they are left inside our book/Kindle. We don't yet have a system to review them.

  3. Hufflepuff - Now we have a systematic system for reviewing highlights. He uses Readwise to review these highlights.

  4. Ravenclaw - We have developed a system where it automatically pulls in your highlights into a central note taking app like Notion or Evernote.

  5. Dumbledore's Army - We engage with books by taking quick notes on the what we read. Ali Abdaal has a Notion template for every book he reads where it asks him a series of questions about the book that he fills out .

    1. Nonfiction: The Book in 3 Sentences, Impressions, Who Should Read It?, How the Book Changed Me, Top 3 Quotes

    2. Fiction: What It's About, How I Discovered It, Thoughts, Who Would Like It?

  6. Order of the Phoenix - There is now a section for Summary and Notes on the book on itself (for him it's books that changed his life or 5 star books that he goes back and takes notes on).

    1. He creates a mini summary of the book and focusing on the points that resonate with you or points that are the most insightful or surprising.

    2. Zettelkasten Method - take literature notes but avoid copying and pasting quotes, rephrase things in our own words

    3. He says you can even post your book notes on a personal blog but it's not necessary.

  7. Dumbledore - Zettelkasten (Evergreen) Method, once we've taken our literature notes we're turning them into permanent notes on the book. These are notes on topics you find interesting (e.g. productivity, photography, etc.) and the notes are self contained and linked to the other notes in your system. For example, if you have a section on Productivity then any note that has to do with productivity will be linked in that section.

I'd already been doing levels 1 through 4 regularly for the past few years but level 5 (Dumbledore's Army), creating quick notes, was a new concept. I have been using his template for both nonfiction and fiction books for the past week and I have about 10 notes done. During the process, since I'm not only adding quotes I'm actually thinking and processing what I took away from the book. The most powerful section for me is "The Book in 3 Sentences" in his Nonfiction template because it allows me to summarize the book in my own words and the "Thoughts" in his Fiction template which allows me to reflect on what I read and how it affected me.

Level 6 ( Order of the Pheonix) I do with some nonfiction books so I'm adding these at the end of the "quick notes". The last level( Dumbledore) taking Evergreen notes, I haven't quite gotten towards yet and I'm not sure if I will. This particular system is quite niched and I don't believe it's necessary for everyone. I think a majority would benefit from level 5, the quick notes. I encourage you to try this review/mini summary for a few books you've read and see how it impacts you.

My goal is to work on adding my notes in for each of these books (there's over 200). But to start with I'm going to work on this everyday for 10 minutes until I catch up, which could take quite a long time. I will let you know how it goes.

See you next week!


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