How writing book reviews fuels your learning.
Reading gives you access to the smartest brains on earth. Learning from the greatest people is the fastest way to become healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Yet, reading per se doesn’t make you a better person. You can read 52 books a year without changing at all.
I’ve read about 20 books on learning in the past four years, and I’ve noticed a recurring pattern: it’s less important what kind of brain you have — what matters is how you use it.
I love my Zettelkasten and RoamResearch. But chatting with my newsletter subscribers, I understood that it’s tough to maintain these systems unless you’re a writer who can spend an hour a day reflecting on the books you read.
The best personal knowledge management systems are useless unless applied. Using the following learning hack can help you make the most of the books without wasting your time.
Why Writing Book Reviews Fuel Your Learning
We only recently started to understand how learning works. Learning science is a new field that combines the knowledge of neuroscience and social and cognitive psychology.
Books have been around for a long before learning science.
What we know now is that learning is a three-step process: acquisition, retention, and retrieval. In the acquisition phase, we link new information to existing knowledge; in the retention phase, we store it, and in the retrieval phase, we get information out of our memory.
Books were invented before these insights. It was Schopenhauer who already stated in the 1850s: “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.”
You don’t read a page and shelf it in your mental library. Instead, your brain stores new information in terms of its meaning to existing memory.
To remember what you read, you not only need to know it but also to know how it relates to what you already know. You can add this layer of meaning by interpreting, connecting, interrelating, or elaborating.
Elaborating means you explain and describe an idea in your own words.
Learning researchers Roediger and McDaniel write: “Elaboration is the process of giving new material meaning by expressing it in your own words and connecting it with what you already know.”
Elaborative rehearsal encodes information into your long-term memory more effectively. The more details and the stronger you connect new knowledge to what you already know, the better because you’ll be generating more cues. And the more cues they have, the easier you can retrieve your knowledge.
„Elaboration is thought to be one of the best ways to increase learning and memory among many memory theorists,” scientists write in the evidence-based book ‘Understanding How We Learn.’
Book reviews are an elaboration practice for reading. Spending 5-minutes every time after you finish a book with writing them will help you store and retain more from what you read.
“A good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable — books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”
― Mortimer J. Adler in How to Read a Book
How to write book reviews for maximum learning
The more you elaborate or try to understand something, the more likely you‘ll keep this new information in your long-term memory.
When you use book reviews as a learning hack, you don’t focus on the quality of writing (eloquence, succinctness, conciseness) or the quality of the content (originality, editing, research, quoting).
Instead, you answer meta-questions that invite you to recall what you read from your memory and store it in relation to its meaning. Here are a few questions you might want to answer every time you finish a book.
- How would you summarize the content in three sentences?
- What do you find interesting about this book? Which parts surprised you? Which arguments altered your understanding?
- How does the content relate to what you know? Does it contradict or confirm something you previously read?
- When would you like to stumble upon the ideas in the book again?
- Which concepts or ideas from the book do you want to apply in your life? When and where will you use these insights?
You don’t need to answer every single one. Keep the prompts that work for you, and screw the rest.
When you write a book summary, you have to filter relevant information, organize it, and articulate it using your own vocabulary. Don’t transcribe the author’s words but try to summarize, synthesize, and analyze. That way, you will remember much more from what you read.
Where to publish your book reviews
Many people I know don’t share their work in public because they’re scared other people judge them. I shared this fear. Around 200 articles later, I know the upsides far outweigh any risk.
Since I publish my work on Medium and in The Learn Letter, I learn faster, meet interesting people, and job proposals from projects that fascinate me.
Once you write book reviews, you not only help other people but also yourself.
You will be able to explain complex ideas during dinner conversations, recall interesting concepts and ideas when you need them, and create your personal library.
Want to feel inspired and improve your learning?
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