Why can't I remember what I read?

5 reasons why I forget everything I read - and what I do about it

I often forget a book as soon as I've read it. These five mistakes while reading are to blame. Avoid them and keep more of what they read.

I am currently reading “Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov again. I read the novel two years ago for a seminar at the university.

I am convinced that I would only have read the first twenty pages of it back then - as it should be as a good student.

I can only vaguely remember the character Pnin and the many squirrels that scurry through the scenes over and over again.

In fact, I must have read the book at least halfway and then across it. Because I find notes on all pages of my copy.

Why can I no longer remember "Pnin"?

Here are five mistakes I made while reading "Pnin". And five pieces of advice that will not only help me, but also hopefully you, so that you can better remember what you have read.

1) I've made meaningless notes

My scribble can be found everywhere in “Pnin”. However, my underlining could not have been particularly effective.

Now they usually say little to me.

How should a lone curl around a single word express a lot?

What I'm happy about, however, are correct notes; a few words or a small sentence pushed to the side. I must have thought something. Something so important that I wanted to hold onto it.

Because of this, the first principle to better remember what you have read is:

Make notes that say something - even five years after reading the book.

How do you take such helpful notes?

Taking notes is a science in itself.

Nabokov himself loved to scribble like a madman in his read books - as I have already told you about myself in this article.

The following system has proven to be effective for my notes:

      • No highlighters. The basic equipment of every student (often the whole color palette) is the most ineffective means of highlighting important things in a text. Pasting a piece of text full of color does not help to highlight important passages or to write down the thoughts you have about this passage. It's better:
      • Buckling dog ears. A deadly sin for book lovers, indispensable for me: bend over the page on which something important is happening. The quickest way to mark something and the quickest way to find something in a book.
      • Mark and note with a (pencil) pen. After the brute method before, this is the more ingenious version of marking important points. The following system works well for me:
          • Nice sentences, good metaphors, important words are circled
          • Mark important passages with a line in the margin
          • More important passages (immediately or when rereading) with a second line
          • Any thoughts that come to me about the above marks are scribbled in the margin

Without real comments, every inspired thought is instantly forgotten. Therefore: write it down as soon as possible!

If you want to see how professional readers take notes, I recommend the “How do you read?” Interview series on 54books. Here bloggers and journalists tell how they make underlines.

What system do you follow for taking notes? Let me know in a comment at the end of the article.

2) I didn't take any breaks while reading

The ideal state for many of us is to devour a book in one piece or in large chunks without a break.

At the end I will tell you why this can also be beneficial for the memory with some books.

With a book in which we would have to force ourselves to this devouring behavior, it is beneficial ...

to take small breaks from time to time while reading.

During the breaks we should recall what we have read: What happened? Which scene will be important? What was particularly interesting?

This trick helps to let what you read from short-term memory slip one level deeper into long-term memory.

This video explains the trick:

In fact, this trick works very well on my second run of "Pnin". I could still remember important episodes the next day.

The five-minute pauses more or less happened automatically: when a chapter is over; when I've read something great, terrible, startling.

3) I haven't talked to anyone about it

From school I still know the tip that you should explain the subject matter to a classmate in order to really anchor it in the memory.

And even when I read books, I can usually remember those books that I talked about with someone else.

With "Pnin" I must have been physically and mentally absent from the seminar. Otherwise I should have kept more. 😉

Real conversation about the novel now replaces writing here. That alone helps: After reading, revisit what you have read.

Accordingly, the next tip is:

Talk to someone about the book.

Be it with yourself in a reading journal. Be it in a blog through the comment function. Be it with friends or in a book club.

4) I only read the novel once

To know what is in a book, of course, the best option is to read it.

And if you have read the book once but forgot its content, a second reading will refresh your knowledge.

It would be even better - but let's be honest: who has the time? - to read the book again as soon as it is finished. Master Nabokov would also be for it.

There is no better technique for memory than repeating over and over again what is supposed to be in it.

If you don't have the time to read it all over again (and unfortunately that is usually the case with me too), you can keep the following advice:

When I have finished reading, I reread all the passages that I have marked with pencil, or the pages in which I bent a dog's ear.

That should be enough to remind me of the most important events in the novel.

So the penultimate tip is:

Read the book again in whole or in part.

5) It was the wrong book for me

Of course I wanted to read “Pnin” two years ago. I had already read “Lolita” with great enthusiasm - and was therefore looking forward to reading it.

However, the Nabokov seminar was not really exciting. And many other things in my life were just more exciting than this seminar.

So my “Pnin” reading was anything but ideal.

Ideally, every reading would look like this: I devour the book. While reading, I am never distracted, but always 100% focused on the text. Afterwards I can remember everything.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for “Pnin”.

It was mostly excruciating to read, always exhausting, and little of it remains in my memory.


Most people know the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. When I don't read a book got tobut read want, it is easier for me to motivate myself to read and to keep what I have read.

I now lean a little out of the window and add a neurological term: I can concentrate better and retain more with books that I want to read by myself because of the so-called reticular activation system.

The idea behind it is very simple: this system filters out all stimuli from the perception that are classified as not important.

Nicely illustrated (and easy to understand) in this video:

So when I read a book that seems important to me, I forget the raging horde of children at the table next to me.

But for “Pnin” I had this system against me. It just didn't seem important enough to me at the time.

So the final advice is:

Only read what seems important to you.

Unfortunately, we cannot always decide for ourselves what we want to read. In this case, it helps to ask yourself the following questions before forced reading:

          • What do I want to learn in this book?
          • Why is this important to me?
          • How do I personally benefit from it?

Reading becomes easier when you realize that it will help you get a better grade or learn something important.

Now that I'm reading “Pnin” again, it is sometimes difficult for me to concentrate. However, I always think of the incredibly good Nabokov article that I would like to write in the near future 😉 And for that I have to be attentive and not miss a sentence or a squirrel.

How you can better remember what you have read

Here are the five pieces of advice to keep more of your reading:

            • Make notes that say something.
            • Take breaks every five minutes while reading.
            • Talk to someone about the book.
            • Read the book again in whole or in part.
            • Only read what seems important to you.

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Author LeonhardPosted on Categories ReadingTags Memory, Better memorize what has been read, Nabokov, Tips