Think about a book you read last year. How much of it do you remember? Could you list 10 things you learned from it? Can you even remember what books you read last year?
Back in school, you actually had to remember what you’d read. Tests, essays and book reports were all just ways to help you retain that information. So engineer Robert Heaton invented a three-step system for reading a book like a student. (And if you are a student, it might be better than your current habits.)
Heaton suggests three kinds of note-taking:
- Underline or highlight important or memorable passages
- Add symbols to denote things such as lines you’re sceptical about, or things you want to research further
- Write thoughts in the margin, in complete sentences
These notes serve two purposes. Writing things down helps you remember them. But you’re also preparing for the second step: Your book report.
Write a report
This step can take a couple of hours, so you don’t need to do it with every book — just the ones that you found yourself taking a lot of notes on, or really appreciating what they taught.
Your report should summarise and restate what you learned from the book, and it should include your evaluation. You need to think critically about how well the book supported its thesis — it’s no good internalising a lot of opinions or arguments from a book if you don’t think the author actually supported their statements.
Again, writing things down will help you retain the information right now. But it also gives you a cheat sheet to check back on, in Heaton’s third (and most optional) step.
Study your notes
A few weeks or months after reading the book, read your report. Heaton also recommends making flash cards to review, which seems more like a “sometimes food”, useful for books whose information you really will be tested on some day, when making life or workplace decisions.
You can also make more of an effort to discuss what you’re reading with others. Even with fiction books, my wife and I like to tell each other the story of what we’ve read, or quote passages to each other. It builds our own appreciation for what we’re reading, plus we get some benefit from the books the other is reading.
But as you pay more attention to what you’re reading, you can use it as an ice-breaker when talking to friends. Remembering and distilling a book’s points to someone else is a great way to challenge yourself. So if sitting down with flashcards sounds tedious, try this “social studying” instead.
You can pick and choose from Heaton’s methods. (And you can apply them to other reading, such as long articles.) Personally, taking notes appeals to me much more than doing a write-up afterwards, when I’m most excited to start a new book.
But putting extra work into your reading will help you appreciate each book better — and help you make better decisions about what to read next.
How to Read | Robert Heaton