Why I stopped using bookmarks

If you read this way, you won’t need them either

Have you ever found yourself flipping back a few pages in a book, trying to get a sense of what you were reading before you put this bookmark where it is?

Even then, you don’t remember reading those last few pages.

This is why I stopped using bookmarks. If you don’t remember the content on those last few pages, then why start your reading session at that point?

You get a sense of satisfaction that you’ve gotten closer to finishing the book. But if you don’t remember what you’ve read, why feel satisfied?

A bookmark is an invitation to forget what you’ve read. This is why, for non-fiction reading, I stopped using bookmarks, and changed the way I read.

I used to read a book with this philosophy in mind:

“I will read this book page-by-page, and I will feel accomplished that I finished the book.”

Now, I think about it this way:

“I will read the parts of this book that are interesting to me. No more, no less.”

My reading generally travels through these phases:

  • What is this book about? I read the table of contents carefully, trying to understand what each chapter is about. Do any of these chapters stick out as more interesting?
  • How is the argument structured? I scan the beginning of each chapter, trying to find its central premise. I try to understand how it fits with the rest of the chapters to form the overall argument of the book.
  • “Magnet” chapters. The chapters that are most interesting to me are my “magnet” chapters. I scan the subheads in these chapters, or occasionally dive in and read linearly.
  • Fill in the gaps. I now have a good sense of the whole book (and I’ve only been reading about 30 minutes). I review the table of contents, and — now that I’ve read my “magnet” chapters — other chapters may interest me more than they did before. I can quickly go scan those chapters.

Using this method, I remember more about a book in under an hour than if I had tried to slog through it for weeks.

Since I’ve changed my whole approach to reading, I have no problem reading an especially interesting part of a book over again, to be sure I understand it, or just to enjoy it.

Of course, if a book is really good, then I’ll go back to the beginning and read straight through. I can do so with the confidence that I’m not reading a bad book.

Life is too short to read stuff you won’t remember anyway. Make a book work for your brain by letting its most interesting parts pull you in, layer by layer. You’ll remember more, and you’ll never again be caught rifling through piles of scrap paper — looking for a bookmark.

I originally described this reading method in this longer article on Observer. That article is available in audio form on my podcast.

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