Mahdi's Engineering

overcoming the fear of forgetting what you read

4 min read

“I cannot remember the books I've read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I read books, especially those on technology and psychology subjects (I'm not much into fiction), I often find myself wondering, "Why am I reading this if I'll forget most of it later?". This thought can be discouraging because our human brains tend to evaluate my daily activities based on the rewards I expect from getting them done.

Reading books and maintaining that student mentality can feel like a challenging long-term investment in today's world.

setting the right expectations: your brain is not a hard drive

From an evolutionary perspective, our brain's primary role is to support our survival instinct by vividly recalling our negative experiences to prevent their repetition in the future, for example thousands of years ago, if you were walking around in the forest and ate a funny looking fruit that was venomous you would be remembering every detail about it for the rest of your life, not to eat it ever again because of the horrible experience it was. This is why we often remember bad memories more vividly than good ones.

Reducing this powerful biological computer to a mere hard drive is a disservice to the nature. It's not realistic to expect to remember every word we read. Reflecting on myself and my own experiences throughout my life, I blame modern school habits for forming such unrealistic expectations.

it's important to build critical thinking

One of the most useful skills you can develop is the ability to distinguish between bad books and good books. To achieve this you have to read a lot of books without thinking about their ratings and coming up with your own conclusions. Critical thinking helps you take everything with a grain of salt, meaning just because it's written in a book doesn't mean it's true (unless a respected proof is provided)

My two cents for recognizing good books are the following points:

  1. Are knowledge gateways to many other references. You will know what other concepts to pursue after you're finished reading it
  2. Not only do they teach you what you know you don't know, but also they help you resolve your unknown unknowns (find out what you don't know that you don't know)
  3. Good books have a great distribution of shallow and deep concepts throughout so it's more interesting and easier to keep on going

Connecting the dots and emotional charge

It's essential to make an emotional connection with what you're reading. When you're emotionally engaged with a subject, you're more likely to remember and understand it. This can involve finding personal relevance in the material, such as relating it to your own experiences or passions.

For example couple of years ago, I started specializing in the software industry. I started reading "The pragmatic programmer" which was one of the top recommended books for developers to read. I could read it without problems but I wouldn't say I necessarily understood what the concepts meant, because I did not have the industry knowhow to really appreciate what was written.

Effective reading goes beyond passive absorption of information. It's crucial to actively engage with the text. This means connecting new knowledge to what you already know. Try to relate the information to your existing understanding or experiences. Don't be afraid to ask questions while you read and jot them down. Later, revisit these questions to gain a deeper understanding or seek answers. This active involvement helps create a web of interconnected knowledge.

Use it before you lose it

The ultimate goal of reading should be practical application. It's crucial to find ways to apply the knowledge you've gained. This could involve using the information in your work, applying it to problem-solving, or sharing your insights with others. When you actively use what you've read, you not only solidify your understanding but also make the knowledge a valuable part of your life.

It's okay to revisit your previous books

Re-reading is a valuable strategy to reinforce your understanding and retention of important concepts. On the first read, you might grasp the surface-level knowledge. Revisiting the same material allows you to dig deeper and uncover nuances or details you might have missed initially. It's like peeling back layers of understanding with each re-read. It's especially helpful for complex or dense texts.

"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man" -Heraclitus