The 18-step Recipe of Reading a Book and Actually Remembering it

When I start to read a book, especially one I have to and not really want to read I often feel like I am rushing through it just to get it over with and as a consequence do not remember anything.

But what is the best way to read books effectively and remember it? Here is a list of steps to make reading not only more effective but more fun.

These seem like an awful lot of things just for reading a book. But after you applied these steps they will become second nature and save you a lot of time and headache. Let’s look at the details.

1. Ask yourself why you read the book

I always ask myself this question first to clearly understand the intent of reading the book. Sometimes for specific exams, a certain book is mandatory but still just making it clear that I read this particular book to get a certificate in a certain field is shifting the purpose from “I have to get through this because it is required” to “When I read this I will advance in my career and get a certificate” or “When I read this I will know everything about Cybersecurity and can teach others”. This makes a huge difference in terms of motivation. If you cannot honestly state that you read this book for yourself because it is important for you and your personal development you might want to rethink whether it is worth it to take the exam at all.

2. Find out what you expect to learn

This step is as important as the first one. Find out what it is you really want to learn. What is the overall question this book is supposed to answer? This question clearly defines the expectations you have so when you are going through the material your brain connects much better what you read to what you expect to learn. If your expectation is “I want to learn the basics of Cybersecurity” in comparison to “I want to be a professional hacker” you evaluate what you read from a different standpoint. This always keeps your eye on the ball and can even lead to the decision not to continue with the book if it does not fit into the big picture.

3. Get an overview of the topic

Most likely you will already know something about the topic itself. Create a short page of keywords and facts you already learned before. This is very helpful to identify areas where you are confident and where you have gaps. This summary can also help you identify the list of questions we create further down to identify what you want the study material to answer.

Now it is time to gather some information about the book you are going to read itself. The important things to look at are:

  • Author
  • Table of content
  • Summary, prologue and epilogue
  • Reviews

4. Evaluate whether the author is an authority in the field

Google recently released details on how they rank blog posts and the time of stuffing keywords into an article is over. They now look at the content and evaluate it by looking at who the author is and if he/she has the necessary experience to talk about a topic. The same principle applies when you are preparing to read a book. Make sure that the person you are trying to learn from is an expert in the field. Being an expert does not always mean to have a degree of some kind. It can also be a history of experience, social proof like recommendations on LinkedIn. So here are a few sources to check the author’s credibility: 

  •  Check his/her LinkedIn profile, look for certificates and experience
  •  Read the author’s page on Amazon
  •  See if he/she offers a course on Udemy, Skillshare or Lynda
  •  Does the author offer podcasts or has a YouTube channel?
  •  Does he/she have a website – About me page
  •  Can the author be booked for private coaching?
  •  Is there a way to contact him/her

Being a good author does not mean you need to have all of these but checking the details gives you a better picture of who you are choosing to be your teacher.

5. Find and read reviews

What do others say about the author and the book? Read some reviews, don’t just look at the number of stars. See what people really complain about. Often reviews are about the delivery speed, packing or other off-topic things that do not say anything about the content. 

6. Go through the table of contents

Now that you decided that the author is credible you need to find out if the book can help you to learn more about the topic and contribute to the big picture you created in step 2. So the first thing to do is to read the table of contents. This not only tells you whether your topic is covered the way you are expecting it but also if the book is structured well. Are there introductory chapters, is the author leading you through the material, does the book have an appendix, a summary, and an index? Also look for the length of the chapters. Smaller sections are usually easier to study and much better to find and review if you need to go back to look up a fact.

7. Read the summary, prologue, and epilogue

Now that you know that the book is suitable for your learning needs, read the prologue and epilogue as well as the summary which you usually find on the back cover. This contains valuable information about why the author decided to write the book, where he got his knowledge and very important: The authors writing style. I recently read a book about ethical hacking and that can be a very dry topic when presented in the wrong way. But the author chose to include examples from his private and business life in such a funny way that this was a really entertaining read and the material was quite easy to remember because of the writing style. 

8. Decide whether to read or not to read the book

This is the most crucial step and the biggest time saver of all. Make a decision to read the book or not. Even if all the research above took an hour or two not reading the book because it does not answer your questions is far more valuable than spending days of going through all the chapters without any benefit. One of my favorite quotes is: “The best book is always the one you don’t read”.  This decision is not just made at this point. If at any time you feel the book is not worth it or get’s the facts wrong stop reading it and move on.

9. Create a list of questions you want the book to answer

Now that you are committed and sure this is the right book it is important to get a little deeper into the expectations you have from the material. Write down a list of questions you have based on the things you wrote down in step 3. See what you know and where your gaps are and formulate clear questions. When I read the ethical hacking book questions I had on my paper were: “How do I secure my website from hackers?” or “How does a penetration test work?”. Don’t be too specific (No true or false questions or something that can be answered with one word) and also do not just make questions out of the chapter’s headlines. 

10. Prepare your reading environment

A reading and study environment that is quiet and comfortable is an important factor. I recently completely redesigned my study room and desk and the difference is just incredible. I went from forcing myself to sit down behind my desk to looking forward every day to get to my study and working area. You can read my article about the perfect study room here. Most important factors are that it is quiet and without distractions. I always switch off my phone and turn down my notebook volume so that I do not hear the “new email” sound. This might sound hard especially in times of social media but was there ever anything important in there that beats a good book?

11. Create a book overview

The next steps we are going to look at are also known as the OPIR method. OPIR stands for Overview-Preview-Inview-Review. In the Overview step, you try to get the big picture of the content. This is also a good moment to start your mind map and create a very high-level outline of the content. Quickly go through the book and look at diagrams, charts, tables or other visual content like images. See if the book contains summaries of chapters or a global summary in the end. Does it contain training material like practice tests or self-check questions? Does the appendix have useful summaries or an extended glossary you can use during your study? Don’t read single chapters yet, try to get an overall picture of what is in the book. The entire overview should not take longer than 10 minutes. It is tempting to jump right in now that you are hungry to know but just follow the recipe.

12. Preview important chapters

Again, do not read everything yet. Go through the book and quickly read the beginning and end of chapters and sections. If Chapters have a conclusion or summary read it. This way you get a pretty good idea of the things you are going to learn and of the things you might be able to skip.  Even the most advanced book usually contain some kind of introduction. If you feel confident or read a series of books the preview step is a good place to look for the perfect entry point. Also, try to grab some of the major keywords and hook them up in your mind map so you can easily fill in the details during the in-depth walkthrough. 

13. Do in an in-depth view of the content

Now the real reading begins. While you read carefully through every chapter take notes (a summary on how to take good notes are in the next step). By having worked with the topic and all the questions of what you want to know and expect from the material you will notice that getting into the details feels much easier because your mind is prepared. Now your brain can easily combine the new facts and answers you find with the questions you put together at the beginning. By writing it down, reading it out loud and creating practice questions you will intensify your knowledge and at the same time prepare excellent review and self-test material. Fill in the details in your mindmap to keep track of where you are in the overall context. If you don’t understand certain facts or a paragraph is not clear write down the page on a separate sheet. I experience that often things become more clear when you get deeper into the topic. If at the end of the book some questions are still open try to reread the chapter during the review step(15) or put the topic on the additional and follow-up material list in step(16). 

14. Take effective study notes during reading

I wrote an entire article on how to take effective study notes so here I just have a list of Dos and Don’ts.

Do this while taking notes reading a book

  •  Write down important details with your own words
  •  Create practice questions from each paragraph
  •  Create correct and wrong answers
  •  Use mind mapping and constantly insert new facts to get the big picture
  •  Write down facts you don’t understand for follow up research

Don’t do this when taking study notes

  •  Don’t highlight important things
  •  Don’t scribble inside of the book
  •  Spend time on coloring

15. Review your study notes

A review is an extremely important step in every attempt to learn something. Most of the things you learn are gone within the first 24 hours. Looking at your study notes the next day will dramatically improve the amount of information you can remember. If you need to go back and reread a chapter of the book now is the time (because you should give it away after you have finished reading it).

16. Identify additional study material

Hopefully going through the book and answering all the questions you had is enough to prepare for your next exam. Still, compare the questions you had at the beginning with your study material and make sure there are no gaps left. If there are, do a research and identify follow up titles or probably an online course to deepen what you have just learned. I am often inspired by a good book even if it is non-fiction and either want to find out more about the topic or enjoyed the writing of the author that much that I take a look at what else he or she has to offer.

17. Share your findings

Nowadays there are many ways to share things. Talk about it on social media, write a guest post on a blog (maybe even get paid for it). Sell your study notes (details also in my taking notes article) or create practice tests like I do and offer paid exam training. Maybe the topic is that fascinating that you might consider starting your own blog about it or write an ebook, a summary which you can offer on Amazon or Smashwords.

18. Give the book to someone else

This is not only a nice and feel-good gesture but an act of completion (at least for me). But this is not all selfless, if someone else you trust reads the book you can discuss his or her view and conclusions. You might get another point of view or opinion on the topic that you had not discovered by yourself. 

Once you followed all the step above you should have a good collection of study notes, questions, and a mind-map to summarize everything you needed and wanted to know in your own words. No need to keep the book catching dust somewhere on your shelf. If you make a habit of taking excellent study notes you will soon have a library of knowledge just made by you for you.

Conclusion: This seems like a lot for a simple book to read. But with practice, this will save you a huge amount of time in the long run. Not only do you skip or replace books that bring no value to you, but the OPIR method also lets you go through the material much faster than with “normal” reading. This method avoids reading things you already know and reread paragraphs over and over. I found since I used the steps above reading even a challenging book can be fun.

7 additional quick tips to improve reading skills

Take a speed reading course – Reading faster and still understanding the context is a learnable skill. There are books about it, online courses and apps (which I used for a while to improve my reading speed).

Learn a new language – You may ask: Why? Everything is on Google and can be translated there in an instant – This can’t be further from the truth. The access I have to information just because I speak English is already so much bigger than only knowing German. But after I have been to a library in China and seen the endless shelves with an incredible amount of knowledge and wisdom makes me wonder how much else is there to know.

Acquire learning and memory techniques – Again, a lot of courses and books can help you to improve your memory and increase your retention rate. Accelerated learning techniques is a full audio course I took which does not only teach you new methods of acquiring knowledge but also explains how memory works. You can get it here on Amazon

Commit to reading at least one book a month – According to statistics that already puts you at the top of the list. As you can see further down the average person read between 3 and 11 books per year. Reading books is like everything else you do more often. You just get better at it, learn new words which enables you to understand more complex things.

Don’t use electronic devices – Everything is digital but according to statistics people still prefer the real deal. Get a real, physical book – nothing beats holding a book and flipping through the pages. I found these shiny screens more distracting and after a while rather painful for the eyes.

Listen to audiobooks – I often use audiobooks or podcasts in my car, the best use of your time while being on the road is listening to a course. I prepared for my Chinese Level 1 exam by just listening to an audio training over and over again. 

Read early in the day – Studies have shown that early in the morning after a healthy energy breakfast and morning exercise people are most active and capable of learning and retaining new information.

Related Questions

How many books does an average person read? According to an article in of the Pew Research Center, the average number of books in a year for an American is 5. With an average reading time per week of 05:42 this is a little more than 50% of what people in India spend every week (10:42) for reading. The lowest reading time was found in Korea with 03:06. This roughly translates to an overall number of books  per year of 3-11.

How many books can you read in a lifetime? Taking an average life expectancy of 73 years and 52 weeks a year (Assuming one can read a book in a week which has been done by various people) that would sum up to a stunning 3276 books (when you start reading at the age of 10). That is of course very unlikely, taking the answer above into account of an average of 5 books/year a total of books seems much more realistic but will most likely never achieved by most of the people.

What is the most read book in the world? According to copies of books sold over the last 50 years, the bible is the most read book ever by far (3.9 billion). “Quotations from the Works of Mao Tse-tung” on number two “only” sold 820 million copies and Harry Potter has a well-deserved 3rd place (400 million).

What is the one book everyone should read? There are a lot of opinions and recommendations so here is a list of all the recommendations from the most popular websites:

  •  Lifehack.org – To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  •  Goodreads.com – Pride and Prejudice, Jayne Austen
  •  ReadersDigest.com – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
  •  Reddit.com – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
  •  theguardian.com – Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes

Who is the best selling author of all time? William Shakespeare and Agatha Christie share the 1.st place with an estimated 2-4 billion sales.

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