Memorizing key ideas of a book: do it while reading, or go through the book again after reading it once?


I read a lot of dense non-fiction, but I find that after finishing a book I have only a hazy, unordered understanding of what I’ve read. What do you think is the best method of memorizing read material? I really don’t want to use flashcards or an app as that will take away the pleasure of it and make me less inclined to read. It’s much more relaxing to read lying on a couch or under a tree than at a desk or with my phone.

My theory is that the optimal method would be along the lines of —

  • create an architectural space (broadly defined) for the book as a whole
  • create rooms or spaces for each chapter or for each main idea
  • categorize all information I come across, and each new “heading” is put in a new room or a new space
  • do this while reading to save time (as opposed to flipping back and forth)
  • quickly recall the entire “palace” every time I pick up the book
  • go over new “material” after each reading session

What do you think?


Great topic, cabinmoose! I am looking forward to hearing the ideas of the community on this one.

Here are my ideas:

  • Months before you’re to read the book, copy paste the summaries of each chapter. Either run it through TTS like Google WaveNet or record yourself reading the summaries. Play those recordings to yourself at intervals before reading the book. Okay, so now you’ve got the gist of what it’s about.
  • Create an architectural space, as you suggested. Do it somewhat like this. I would say make a mnemonic image for the main idea of each chapter. That would give you a sound foundation. But if you’d like, you could do subchapters and headings as well, though I feel that would be better executed with flashcards (like SQ3R and flip each heading into a question, and make a flashcard of it).

Along with extracting all the summaries beforehand you could copy paste all the headings and have that on file, and in the evening, when you’re done with today’s reading, you’d try to write at least one meaningful sentence about each heading. Like in the SQ3R method. But you could put this off until you’re done with the whole works. After you’re done with the book you could have the battery of headings in front of you put your cell phone on record and say at least one meaningful sentence about each heading. Then play that recording back to you after a week, month, half-year and year.


Reading a book once is a waste of time.

1.) I like to read in Kindle. I then export my highlights. I tend to over highlight so I often go over my limit which is annoying. I try to avoid paper books.

2.) I put the book into Supermemo’s Incremental reading.

3.) I use Supermemo’s little bibliography feature thing. This is nice because it adds information automatically to every sub-highlight/sub-topic I make.

4.) As I review the highlight, randomly, in SuperMemo, I will add tags to each individual highlight. The way my tag system works is anything preceded by $ is a tag. So if I want to pull up all my notes on say, Thomas Jefferson, I simply search for the string $FoundersJefferson. If I am interested in all snippets/highlights about the US founders in general the tag would be $Founders.

5.) After I have seen the highlight a few times, I manually copy and paste the highlight (with tags) into Evernote. This serves both as a backup and a little ritual for me. Once the note is in Evernote I dismiss the highlight/snippet in Supermemo (Supermemo calls these Topics).

6.) The small parts of the book I want to put into a memory palace - I place into a spreadsheet in Google Sheets. I then, at some point in future, make a memory palace out of the little factoids on this sheet.

I have not yet tried organizing a memory palace by the chapters of the book, etc. My palaces are organized by topic.

Something I am Experimenting with now:

*** I make a little interactive web page of the book notes. It is a basic collapsible outline style thing.

I take notes in HTML. I use the nerd text editor VIM. I have VIM UltiSnips and I use that to insert my notes automatically in little collapsible sections. I will take complex paragraphs and organize those into little lists of items, instead of a block of text. I am thinking about adding a little search feature to my template that will pull out notes by tag right there on the web page. Just experimenting with this now.

(Josh Cohen) #4

If you haven’t seen it, there’s a Vim thread. :slight_smile:

You might like Org Mode. The notes are written in org format (similar to markdown) and you can export to HTML, text, PDF, or other formats by pressing ctrl-c ctrl-e. I have it set up with Vim keybindings. It has a few nice features like tags and capture templates that file notes away in custom formats/locations with a couple of keypresses.


The problem I find with your method is that, despite being highly efficient (and I’ve used a similar method in the past using Anki), it requires almost twice the eye-strain, twice the sitting at a desk, twice the organization, twice the strain on the “reading” part of the brain, and guarantees very little order in memory.

When I say reading a book once I mean to read slowly and diligently so as to retain the information read; not to read once and forget about it. In a sense, it’s not really reading just once, because it requires re-reading paragraphs, sentences, and even chapters until it’s properly understood and encoded in memory. But it would generally be a one-at-a-time method with revisions only when necessary.

The idea behind it is as follows:

  • You can organize what you read within a palace-like system as you are reading, meaning you can divide the book by chapter and subchapter (or point and subpoint), access material starting wherever you want, explain the book backward and forward or specific to broad. You can add a “note” within the palace as to what approximate page the information is located (1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc)
  • You can place the books you read into a greater palace (or “portal” room if you will) according to genre, or main idea, so that when running through an idea in your head you’d be able to quickly recall what you’ve read on the topic
  • Every time you “chunk” a part of the book into memory you are closing your eyes and using a different part of your brain (visual/creative/spatial), habitually refreshing your mind so that you can read for longer and longer periods. If you were instead to chunk the book into flashcards, you would be using the same part of your brain as for reading while also straining your eyes and sitting at a desk, which really doesn’t motivate one to read.
  • You can read anywhere and at anytime without the dread of knowing you have to go back and highlight/flashcards whole sections. This means a very pleasurable read on a train, in bed, or on a long walk(!), knowing full well that you are retaining information while reading (and practicing the ol’ ars memoriae)
  • You can easily get into a feedback loop while reading that would be difficult to develop otherwise. If you are continually going back into your memory and “checking” on the palace at every new session, chapter, or page (depending on density and complexity), you know whether you’ve retained it in memory. This creates a nice loop that motivates you to read more because you can actually feel yourself remembering it. And every time you continually walk the palace, you are reinforcing the memory! And it’s all ordered, unlike with flashcards.

To give an example, I tried this for literally a minute on a book I was reading last week. I see a beggar with an axe standing a door, and he opens the door for me and I am confronted with a long table in lively grass. The first thing I see at the table is an empty vase with sunlight coming through. The next I see is a ghost in Ancient Roman garb handing me an appetizer in the shape of a cape. This memory tells me the following information: the 4th (axe) chapter of the book was entitled “true humility” (beggar). The first point made was that one should be an “empty vessel” of selflessness to accept God’s love (sunshine in vase). The second point made was that honor (cape appetizer) should be an enjoyment to receive when it is brought to you (Roman ghost) in the pursuit of God.

Clearly a trivial example, but now imagine if I had a whole series of interconnecting rooms (in a broad sense, with some being courtyards and gardens and all sorts of Narnia-like excesses). I’d have a room for each chapter, and within each chapter a room or part-of-room with a subchapter, and so on and so on, but all entirely ordered, so that I would be able to rattle off what the 4th point in the 3rd subchapter of the 5th chapter of a book is. What’s more, a “door” to this palace by any variety of signifiers would be placed in a great room called Philosophy, so that within my room Philosophy I had a wall of photographs called Religion wherein I can see everything I’ve ever read on the subject of religion (that I find true, important, or interesting).

I also did this with a quote I enjoyed from another book, again only for a brief moment. I see a man with lazer eyes piercing his heart. The heart has a lock on it and while he is piercing it issues of Life Magazine are jetting out. This singular figure encodes a quote from the Psalms: “search your own heart with all diligence for out of it flow the issues of life.”

Now the point of this would not to be some walking monstrosity of pointless information, but to use this trove of information to develop my own ideas, compare ideas, simplify ideas, trace any-and-all sources, know where to find a good author to make a point, and be able to access the information I know when enjoying a hike or a run or a shower.

I have a method in the works, and I’d love to hear what others think, or whether others have their own method.


Very interesting.

For me this would be extremely challenging. I need to have the memory palace and information written down somewhere - at least as backup.

  • You can read anywhere and at anytime without the dread of knowing you have to go back and highlight/flashcards whole sections. This means a very pleasurable read on a train, in bed, or on a long walk(!), knowing full well that you are retaining information while reading (and practicing the ol’ ars memoriae)

I never go back and highlight. I just naturally underline when I read (or highlight on Kindle). I then export these notes months later when I find a book that is worth it.

Please keep up us updated on your progress.

(Lynne Kelly) #7

I like the idea of reading wherever I am and not interrupting the flow with adding to a memory palace. I also prefer paper books, especially when reading in bed. But not exclusively.

I use postcards or blank cards for the bookmark in paper books. I then note the key word and page of anything I want to include in a palace or on a different memory device. I then review that list and add the information to the palace when I am in palace-mode. That’s often a few times before I have finished the book, but not at the time I am simply reading and enjoying. I also find that I have themes for images and links far better when I have read more. Some idea are repeated or better reorganised, so I do that at palace stage.

Also, I read different books on the same topic and link it into an existing memory palace. That works better when I have an overview of what I want to add from the book and how it will best hook onto the palace I already have in use.

I hope that makes sense!



Hi @LynneKelly! I really love your book!!!

(Lynne Kelly) #9

Thank you so much for saying so, Luke. I really appreciate it. That would be The Memory Code. The new one (out in June), Memory Craft, extends the ideas on the memory methods and how to implement them, but no archaeology. I love memorising!

Thank you again,


(Joseph Brenner) #10

My approach to serious reading (almost always on paper) is I
keep sets of different colored post-it note tabs at hand,
typcially stuck inside the cover of the book (though I also
keep some in the small notebook I always carry in a side
pocket of my ubiquitous combat pants). There’s a standard
color code I use (green=good, pink=questionable,
yellow=quotable, blue=reference to trace), but I also
typically use an odd color or two (e.g. red, purple) to flag
things for a particular project in mind.

I sometimes, needless to say, write remarks about the book
in the aforementioned pocket notebook.

The colored tabs may just get left on the pages of the book
once I return it to my shelves-- it’s a funny experience
picking up a book I can’t even remember reading and seeing
visible evidence I actually went through it pretty

There are other times when I go back through the book
reviewing what I’ve tabbed and typing up the notes-- until
recently that would be in a more-or-less freeform text file,
though of late I’ve come around to org-mode, and might start
using that.

And sometimes I use a 2-d graphical “hypertext”
lay-out of my own, e.g.


LOL!! That pretty much sums up the writing scam.

I have tried the method of putting a check mark next to every paragraph you agree with currently, and a big X next to every paragraph you do not agree with. It is somewhat helpful.

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(Josh Cohen) #12

I’m going to try that. I usually write all over the insides of the books and dog-ear each page that has writing on it so I can find my notes later, but it doesn’t have the neatest looking result.


You have a new book coming out?! Huzzah!

The memory code profoundly affected my parenting style, I created a journey for the alphabet and phonetic sounds with about 52 images (and some songs) for my then-6-year-old (now 7) because of your book. And I plan to teach him music theory soon based on things I picked up. He knows my “Lukasa” as a “magic rock” because I gorilla glued glass beads and shells and glitter all over a rock (as opposed to using wood).

MemoryCraft. Top of my buy list now.
Thank you. You rock.

(Lynne Kelly) #14

Oh wow. Thank you, beau2am. You have absolutely made my day, if not my entire week!

I’ve lost track of what I have said where, so apologies if I am being repetitive. I had no idea when I was writing The Memory Code, just how significant music could be. In Memory Craft, which is the practical version, I advocate that music and art should be at the heart of the curriculum, not on the peripheries as they are often now in schools. Music is such a phenomenal memory aid able to encode a great deal of information, so I spent a lot of time with musicians looking at both memorising music and songs, but also using music in a much broader sense.

I love the term “magic rock”! There’s a lot more about the lukasa in the new book because so many people have reacted as you have.

Thank you so much for commenting here!


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