How to be a better reader: six ways to hack your brain into retaining all that information

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Last week, I talked about things you need to do in order to be a better writer. This post is a continuation of that, as I firmly believe that reading and writing go hand in hand. You can’t possibly aspire to be a writer if you aren’t a reader first and foremost, and to do that, you need to understand there are two types of reading: the first is passive. Yes, you’ll read a couple of books in a year, mostly bestsellers. And sure, it’s better than nothing. But you don’t really engage with the text, do you? You let your eyes scan lazily over the page and the words are forgotten as quickly as they came.

The other type of reading is the kind they attempt to teach you in school, usually unsuccessfully, because they present it as ‘work’ instead of ‘joy’. Reading comprehension! Obligatory discussion! Précis! Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. No. You learn to read in this way if you go to university – you’ll have to if you want to stand any chance of passing your finals. But this type of ‘active’ reading is not only limited to academic textbooks. You can apply it to your leisure-time reading as well to make sure you get the most out of the hours you spend poring over pages. The more you know…

1. Make time to read every day

We’re all busy little human beings. We all have jobs and families and responsibilities and problems and all sorts of excuses that allow us to act like it’s okay to say “I just don’t have time to read”. I call bullcrap, especially if you’re saying that on Facebook. Right after your “OMG RED WEDDING/ OMG DEXTER/ OMG BREAKING BAD” status. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be watching TV. You absolutely should be watching TV. There are some brilliant stories happening on the box at the moment and it’d be a sin to miss out. But if you can find the time to watch an hour or two of telly every day, then surely you can find half an hour a day to read. Just that: half an hour. Maybe you do it when you’re commuting. Maybe you do it on your lunch-break. Maybe you do it while you’re having dinner or before bed. Just make sure you do it. Clear a little head-space, and indulge yourself in half an hour of inhabiting a completely different world.

2. Make lists

Don’t you hate it when people keep recommending books and they sound really, really bloody good and then you go and forget them? Happens to me all the time. Well, happened. I discovered the importance of keeping lists when I discovered the nifty little website, Goodreads. It really is a must, if you enjoy reading, that you join this site. It allows you to keep track of all the books you’ve read, make note of all the books you want to read, track your progress so you know how long it’s taking you to read a book, and ‘rate’ the book depending on how much you enjoyed it. It also recommends books for you based on what you’ve already read, and lets you see what your friends are reading right now. Never forget a book again.

3. Organise your bookshelf

Step one: invest in a bookshelf. Really? You’re a “bookworm” and your books are all over the place? Nonono. Buy a bookshelf. A cheap one. The cheapest one you can find. Stick it in a corner. Now fill it with gorgeous books. Organise them – alphabetically? By genre? By colour? Doesn’t matter. Take the time to physically engage with your books. I’m totally serious. Handle them. Smell the pages. Know where to find them if you need them. Oh, and, if you can, buy bookplates and put one in every book in your library to make sure nobody ever borrows a book from you again without returning it. If you’re short on space, stop considering yourself a collector, and start calling yourself a ‘curator’. Keep only the books you’ve loved and which have had an impact on you. Donate the rest to charity. By the way, this also applies if you are a digital reader. I have a digital bookshelf on my e-reader as well as a physical one, and I still sort out my digital books alphabetically. I regret nothing.

4. Take your time, read critically

When you sit down to read, let yourself read at your own pace. Don’t rush it, or everything gets muddled and forgotten. Really engage with the words. Process them. Ask yourself why that particular word was used. Think about what reaction you are having to the words. Are they making you feel happy? Sad? Disgusted? Inspired? Why? Are you learning something new? Are you being introduced to an idea that subverts a previously held assumption? And how does that make you feel? I remember the first time I read American Psycho, aged 17, I had never read anything quite like it. I was completely appalled by it. Sometimes, I had to stop reading and go outside for air. I’d never had such a visceral reaction to a book before. I thought about putting it down and moving on to the next thing; instead, I started to analyse the way it was written and really try to grapple with WHY it was causing me to react to strongly. It taught me how to write really shocking, controversial scenes if I need to. I can read those passages now without feeling sick (though the word ‘brie’ now always makes me a little nervous…)

5. Take notes

You’re going to be spending a few hours on this book. It’s a bit of a commitment. It almost seems a sin to get nothing but fleeting pleasure out of it. Consider keeping a notebook handy when you read, to take down marginalia, thoughts you have while reading, and things you’ve read which you’d like to remember. Maybe you’d prefer sticky notes which you can tack to the book. After you finish the book, write a little review of it. Straight away so you don’t forget. Goodreads also allows you this function. Either way, scientists have found that when you write something down by hand, you’re more likely to commit it to memory.

The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses… When writing by hand, the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps us recognise letters. This implies a connection between reading and writing, and suggests that the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading…

6. Discuss

Finally, think about joining a book club, or setting one up with your book-loving friends. Reading doesn’t have to be a solitary activity and there is a lot of fun to be had in sitting down with some good friends and a good glass of wine to share your views and opinions on a book you’ve all just been reading. It is likely you won’t be in agreement about everything. Cherish those discrepancies and talk about them. The more you engage with the book, with its story, with its plot and characters, the more likely your mind is to stop thinking about it as a ‘book’ and start thinking about it as an ‘experience’.

How do you read? Any tips you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments.

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