How I Read Non-Fiction and Remember Everything (Ish)

Do you feel like you never remember what you’ve read? By switching from hardcovers to Kindle I’ve found a way to remember everything I read (ish) without it ruining the reading experience. Highlighting and being able to work with your highlights in a creative memory-enhancing way made all the difference in the world.

How I Read Nowadays

TL;DR: Kindle + highlighting

Picture of the Kindle next to a cup of coffee

Last year, I got a Kindle. We were heading out on a backpacking trip and the pressure of bringing enough books vs not bringing too many books got the better of me. With no expectations whatsoever I went out and bought the cheapest Kindle I could find (about $90). I thought I would hate it. The feeling would be off, the selection would be limited and the batteries would run out. I couldn’t be more wrong.

I won’t do the full Kindle pitch here, writing about how I actually prefer reading from it to regular books, how convenient it is not to have to wait for shipping, or how I don’t even recall the last time I charged it. What I do want to do, however, is to highlight one game-changing feature. That is, the highlight feature.

I automatically started highlighting passages when I started my first book. You simply point and drag with your finger, as one would expect. It’s also possible (albeit a tiny bit clunky with the on-screen keyboard) to add text notes to highlights. I found it convenient that you were able to reference your highlights from the Kindle and my computer, but didn’t think more about it at the time. When I found out that it’s possible to export all of your highlights and notes into a text file, everything changed.

Anyway. That’s how I read nowadays. On my Kindle, simply highlighting anything I want to remember.

How I Remember Everything I Read (Ish)

TL;DR: Write a summary using the exported highlights

How do you remember everything you read? This has always been a problem for me. Probably for you too, if you’re reading this. My go-to approach used to be to make small pencil marks in the margin of my books. A dot for an interesting idea and a dash for something supporting the previous idea. This makes it easier to reference or skim the book, but is very far from ideal. Another method I’ve used is to pause and take notes parallel to the reading. This leaves me with a great summary of the book, but it somewhat ruins the joy of reading. If only there was a way to get all the benefits of the second method, while only doing the first.

I found the service, which allows you to store all of your highlights and notes in the cloud. What really sets it apart from the default Kindle app is that it’s possible to export all your highlights to a plain text file, that’s easy to work with. Whenever I finish a good non-fiction book and I want to make sure to remember it, I’ll export my highlights as a plain text file. That looks something like this:

Unprocessed highlights

I make sure to highlight all relevant chapter and section headings while reading, so the next step is to find and mark them. I like to use the text format Markdown, which makes it easy to format text without having to meddle with buttons and stuff. I just add a # sign for a header, two for a sub-header, three for a sub-sub-header, etc. ## will usually be the chapters and ### the chapter sections. Use for example MacDown to get started. But you can do this in Google Docs or any other word processor as well. For this and all future steps, I’ll open up the book in the desktop Kindle app for reference, and add structure to my highlights.

The Kindle app for macOS

Now for the fun part. Looking at one section at the time, I’ll read through the highlights and then try to reformulate them in my own words. For some sections, or if I’m lazy, that ends up just being direct quotes from the book. Ideally, I want to re-formulate and summarize the highlights in my own words, both explaining and condensing the highlights. It’s blazingly fast to reference the highlights with their contexts in the Kindle desktop application if something is unclear. The result looks something like this:

Markdown summary

Which I’ll later on export to a PDF looking something like this:

PDF summary

This is a somewhat time-consuming process, but it’s 100 % worth it. It is also a lot faster to do it this way than to do it parallel to the reading, or to do it with a physically highlighted book. Not only does it give me a searchable summary to reference in the future that’s with me in the cloud wherever I go. I also find that it helps me internalize and remember the contents a whole lot more. This might be because of the spacing effect, which states that studying the same material again at a later point helps recollection. It might be because I’m interacting with the text in a more hands-on way. Aside from memory benefits, it’s a great opportunity to go beyond the map and add my own thoughts, ideas, and applications. The summarizing is almost as rewarding as the actual reading!

The difference between me simply reading a paperback and making some marks in the margin and this new method is impossible to exaggerate. The concepts I read stick with me in a whole new way and I’m able to recall them in conversations and internalize them in my professional and personal life. And if I don’t remember everything in my brain, I know that my phone remembers everything, and I’m seldom more than seconds away from referencing anything. Hence the “ish”. The best part is that this method doesn’t interfere with or slow down my reading at all.

Disclaimers / Exceptions

  • Not all books are worth summarizing. But that’s okay. The highlights are still there in the Kindle app and on my.clippings. I can search through them or skim them whenever I want to, without having to do any extra work.
  • Some books are too long or too complex for this method. Too complex for me, that is. When I feel like I’m losing control I’ll just do this method for each section of the book instead, or each chapter.
  • The method does take some time. The book in the screenshots took me about 7 hours to read, and about 2.5 hours to summarize. But it was the best book I’ve read in a while, resulting in loads of highlights and an 11 page summary.