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The Power of Re-Reading

I consider myself a relatively careful reader.

I take little notes in the margins.

Dog-ear important pages.

Maybe jot a few things down in a notebook as I go along.

And yet I am stunned whenever I happen to go back to a book for a second or even a third time how little I remember of the contents.

I’m not talking about reading to study for a test, mind you. I can usually retain what I need to long enough for that sort of thing.  And besides, the days of having to take anything other than self-imposed tests are long behind me.

No, I am talking about the book that I put on my list because I thought it sounded really interesting. The book I devoured over the course of a week or so and then place dutifully on those shelves my wife and I were so thrilled to have built in our living room.

A year later, if I happen to pick up that same book, I am lucky if I can remember the first thing about it. For example, I had this experience recently with Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Ironic. Apparently the mind doesn’t work all that well over the long haul.

So here’s what I plan to do: re-read regularly.

Yes, I know there are all sorts of tips out there about retaining more of what you read. Josh Kauffman, for instance, highlights some valuable ones over on The Personal MBA blog as does Tim Ferris on his blog. Useful stuff in certain situations, but a great deal of my reading is purely for the pleasure of it, and while I most definitely want to learn from it, I don’t want to become obsessive and make it into a chore.

So, I’m going to re-read.

Specifically, as a reader suggested on a Pick the Brain post on lifelong learning I did a while back, I’m going to re-read an old book for every three or so new books I read. I’m also going to start noting down what I have read and when – inspired by a friend who always writes the place and date of the things he reads in the front of the book.

I’m not sure how much that will help, but I am betting it will help quite a bit. What do you think? Is re-reading part of your learning habit? What helps you retain what you read?

Jeff

P.S. – If you are interested in memory, you may also want to see my earlier series on 5 Key Paths to Improving Memory as well as my podcast with Fiona McPherson from About Memory.

Title image by Kranich17 from Pixabay

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11 comments
Jeffrey says

There is a lot of information out there and the key in this information age is who do you listen to. Once you figure that out I agree it helps to read and read books as long as they are the right ones that will help you become successful. I think a success secret is to master the book and keeping reading them until the information is fully integrated. What books are you reading? I am reading Think and Grow Rich and have read it multiple times.

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Jeff Cobb says

Madeleine – Thanks so much for commenting and sharing “Buffalo for the Broken Heart.” Sounds like an interesting book. I have a feeling this post might leave me with as many new books to read as old ones to re-read! – Jeff

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Madeleine Kolb says

This post and the comments are so interesting to me because I’m currently re-reading a book called “Buffalo for the Broken Heart” by Dan O’Brien. He’s a buffalo rancher and writer of fiction and non-fiction. I haven’t re-read many books, but I enjoy going back to a book that’s so well-researched and important and well-written.

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Jeff Cobb says

Mickie – Funny, Blue Ocean Strategy is one of the books sitting on my desk right now. I haven’t actually read it, but I have been told so much about it that I feel like I will be re-reading it! – Jeff

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Mickie Rops says

How true, Jeff. I am currently re-reading Blue Ocean Strategy. One thing I love about my Kindle is that I have many of my previously read books on hand to reread when I’m traveling! I need to remind myself to more often click on a book already there instead of downloading a new one…and to use the highlights and annotation feature more so that I can at least review those once in a while.

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Jeff Cobb says

Many thanks to everyone for the comments!

Erin – I just may pull 1984 down off the shelf. It’s been a long time since I’ve read that!

Avil – I aspire to your discipline and I’ll have to check out Key to Yourself. (And for other readers here, I recommend Avil’s blog.)

Amy – I agree completely about being “at a different place in my understanding” when re-reading. Thanks for making that point.

Celisa – True. We obviously do retain a pretty amazing amount. Perhaps even more in the case of a truly great writer who creates vivid images. I don’t think the image of the snow falling over all the living and the dead will ever slip my mind!

Neil – Flipping it sounds good, though I am not sure I can hold myself back from all the new things I want to read. Re-reading the Meditations should definitely be on my list, though!

Jeff

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Neil Barker says

I like that 3-to-1 ratio. Although I think I may have it flipped the other way: 3 old books re-read for every new book purchased. I’ve certainly done with with books like Tim Ferriss’ “The Four Hour Work Week” and “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius.

I’m still constantly amazed at how I learn new things by re-reading the same books over and over again. Funny how the mind can take the same information and understand it differently at different times.

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Celisa Steele says

I just finished re-reading James Joyce’s “The Dead.” It was as good a short story as I remembered it being some 15 years ago when I first read it, but, like you said, I was amazed at what I had forgotten–or at least wasn’t able to readily recall. But, on the other hand, I was struck too by what I had retained–for example, the use of “literally” in the opening sentence (despite the description not really being literal). The mind is funny and fickle. It seems we both forget and remember with wild abandon.

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Amy Blankenship says

For me, the power of rereading is a bit different, though just as important. Each time I reread the same information, especially on a subject I am trying to learn, I am at a different place in my understanding, so I assimilate different pieces of it or see different pices as important than I did the last time.

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Avil Beckford says

Jeff,

The books that I read over and over again are the books that have had a profound impact on my life. One such book is Key to Yourself by Venice Bloodworth. I have read that book over 10 times and every time I read it I see something that appears new to me, or perhaps I am just understand the material better. I know someone who has read How to Win Friends and Influence People every year for about 17 years and that’s the one book that had a profound impact on her life.

In 2002, I made a commitment to read a book a week and when I became comfortable with that I increased the number. I have a table which I have created in Microsoft Word, and for each year, I record the name of the book, author, the month in which I read it, and about three years ago I added another column and I record a one paragraph summary of the book. It’s a numbered list so I can easily see if I am on track with my reading goal.

As I am writing this comment, I am thinking that I will add a rating for the book.

I do book reviews on my blog The Invisible Mentor https://theinvisiblementor.com and as I am reading the book I take notes. In my book review, I usually have five great ideas which is one of my signatures and I have a notation for the page number whenever I flag a great idea. If certain words resonate with me I record the page number and I have another file called Quotes That I Like and I record those words there. Also for the books reviews, depending on the mood that I am in, I will have a section called application, where I suggest possible ways to apply the content of the book. This mere act forces me to remember the content. And I often go back and read the book reviews.

If you have time, read Tim Sanders’ book Love is the Killer App and in it he has a system similar to the one I use to help you to remember what you’ve read.

Also, if you read something neat write about it on the blog, that is teach it to others because this is an educational blog.

I am going to purchase a copy of PhotoReading, a system to help you remember more of what you read. It came highly recommended. Perhaps if you practiced some of these tips, remembering what you read will become a habit.

Thank you for blogging about this. Avil Beckford

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Erin Brenner says

Repetition is a great way to learn, to help you remember something, and that’s just what rereading is. I confess, though, I don’t reread much, either. Oh sure, a good novel I read years ago will get a reread (I’ve read “1984” and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series several times), but not so much things I wish to actually learn. I like your idea of rereading something for every 3 books you read.

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