The best reading technique is the one that cures ignorance.
I was thinking about this powerful conclusion when I read a longer quote that we’re going to dig into on this page.
Frankly, I do not think I’m exaggerating when I say this:
This quote may well contain the most important set of thoughts you will ever read when it comes to helping you read better.
Let’s dig in and then talk about how it relates to improving your reading and your memory of what you read.
“To young writers I give only two secrets that really exist… all the other hints of Rosetta Stones are jiggery-pokery. The two secrets are these:
First, the most important book you can ever read, not only to prepare you as a writer, but to prepare you for life, is not the Bible or some handbook on syntax. It is the complete canon of Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Holmes mysteries are nailed to the fixed point of logic and rational observation. They teach that ratiocination, and a denial of paralogia, go straight to the heart of Pasteur’s admonition that “Chance favors the prepared mind.” The more you know, the more unflinchingly you deny casual beliefs and Accepted Wisdom when it flies in the face of reality, the more carefully you observe the world and its people around you, the better chance you have of writing something meaningful and well-crafted.
From Doyle’s stories an awakened intelligence can learn a system of rational behavior coupled with an ability to bring the process of deductive logic to bear on even the smallest measure of day-to-day existence. It works in life, and it works in art. We call it the writer’s eye. And that, melded to talent and composure, is what one can find in the work of every fine writer.
The second secret, what they never tell you, is that yes, anyone can become a writer…. The trick is not to become a writer, it is to stay a writer. Day after day, year after year, book after book. And for that, you must keep working, even when it seems beyond you. In the words-to-live-by of Thomas Carlyle, “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou has in thee: out with it, then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called Today; for the Night cometh, wherein no man can work.”
All that, and learn the accurate meaning of “viable,” do not pronounce it noo-kew-ler, understand the difference between “in a moment” and “momentarily,” and don’t say “hopefully” when you mean “it is to be hoped” or “one hopes.” Because, for one last quotation, as Molly Haskell has written: “language: the one tool that enables us to grasp hold of our lives and transcend our fate by understanding it.”
This quote comes from Harlan Ellison. It has got so much packed into it – and that’s not even to mention the quotes inside the quote.
Why Having A Proper Reading Technique Is The Ultimate Cure To Ignorance
Here’s a secret:
A lot of people read.
Except that they aren’t really reading.
Ask yourself this:
What does it mean to read a book?
I talk about what I consider “depth reading” in How To Memorize A Textbook.
In brief, depth-reading is a process that helps you discover the right parts of a book to memorize.
That means not every page. Not every detail. It’s about applying information theory combined with the 80/20 rule. (80 percent of your knowledge comes from only about 20 percent of memorized information, which means you can memorize a lot less and still know more.)
Yet, a lot of people think they need to memorize an entire book, but it isn’t true.
The whole issue reminds me of a circular question that’s been going round for thousands of years:
Is it better to learn and memorize thousands of books to get a broad education? Or is it better to know just a few books better than most people ever will?
The Answer Is Pretty Simple!
The best book that you ever read, the most important book you can ever read is the book that you actually read.
Of course, it’s up to you which book you read. You don’t have to take Ellison’s advice that it must be Sherlock Holmes.
Ellison asks us to see a life lesson in Holmes: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
And that’s really what Holmes is all about. After all, using Memory Palaces or Mind Palaces is the ultimate preparation.
At the same time, it’s not really that Holmes has some super intellect or that he uses Memory Palaces or that he is more intelligent than anyone else. It’s just that he has a prepared mind.
And this leads us back to this idea of reading a thousand books or reading one book.
Memorize! Memorize! Memorize!
Do you remember the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast episode How to Tap the Mind of a Ten‑Year-Old Memory Palace Master?
In it, I interviewed Alicia Crosby, the 10‑year-old who used Memory Palaces to memorize all of the Shakespeare plays in historical order by title.
Not the actual content of the plays, mind you, but the title of every play – which is still an extraordinary feat.
On the interview, we also heard from her father. Together, they were talking motorcycle rides and making Memory Palaces along the way. These Memory Palaces were filled with beautiful stations found along the way.
All done at speed.
And that’s a beautiful thing. But (and with respect to my speed reading friends) …
Reading At Speed Is Not Always The Best Way To Invite Information Into Your Mind!
In fact, if you’re want to ramp things up, here’s the truth about how to read faster.
During the interview, I told a story from Kafka.
In that story, a young man has to travel to a different city to get to work. Day in and day out, he takes the train.
Then one day he misses the train, so he has to take a bicycle.
When he gets to the town, he sees this old man who is sitting on a bench.
He says to the old man, “My, I have never noticed so much about this journey, but now that I’ve taken a bicycle, wow, this is amazing. I noticed so much detail. I became aware of so many things that were never evident to me before.”
The old man says, “Yeah, well just wait and see what you discover when you walk next time.”
There’s No Shame In Slowing Down
This story from Kafka is about slowing down. It is about actively noticing the world around you. And being prepared to do so.
This man on the bike – he wasn’t prepared at all. In fact, as he was constantly taking the train, life was passing him by. All the different details whizzed past so that he never had a chance to memorize anything because he was just not paying attention to anything.
But slowing things down by taking the bike, made so many details evident.
And for the kicker ending, as the old man suggests, walking makes the details of the world even more evident.
The World Becomes Eye-Catching When You Walk
Have you ever read Will Self?
If not, check out his book Psychogeography.
Psychogeography is the idea that you can walk to an airport, for example, get on a plane and then walk to your hotel.
According to self, your body will not know that you haven’t walked to New York.
For example, Self talks about flying from Heathrow in London to JFK in New York and how going by foot to the airport and then walking from the airport to his hotel tricked his body into thinking he walked the whole way.
Now, to the extent that Self’s procedure actually tricks your mind, I don’t know, but the term “psychogeography” certainly is an appropriate because when you walk, you can notice more things.
And the more things you notice, the more things you can notice. Just like with learning, the more you can learn, the more you can learn because you have more of a basis upon which to ground more learning.
Then Just Do It
And then take another look at the Thomas Carlyle quote Harlan Ellison gives us.
In it, Carlyle is saying, “Produce! Produce!”
And whatever you have before you to do, do it with your entire mind, and with your entire body. Do it with your entire soul. Get in there and do it.
Do it in a way that is whole and complete, in a way that has a beginning and a middle and an end.
Because as Carlyle says, “the Night cometh,” and nobody can work in the night.
What is night in this quote?
Night Is Death
Look, most of us work with half our butt hanging out of our pants.
We’re not fully involved in our work.
We are half involved in it.
We’re a quarter involved in it.
Maybe we’re even just 10 percent involved in it (or less).
That’s no good.
It’s No Way To Live!
And so that’s why being prepared with memory techniques and Memory Palaces is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Because you are able to focus on information in a completely different way, at a much deeper level, at a 100 percent level.
Don’t you think that’s much better than passively trying to get information into your memory?
Or do you prefer hoping or praying or wishing on a cloud that what you need to learn will just settle itself into your brain?
I’m sorry, but that’s just not how focused attention works.
Here’s The Ugly Truth …
With active recall and the other aspects needed to improve your memory, learning on autopilot simple isn’t going to happen!
Or at least, not in a way that is as miraculous, magical and as instantaneous as when you use memory techniques.
And When You’ve Got The Right Memory Techniques Working For You …
You can do things with your whole might like Carlyle advises.
You can do every completely when you’re using memory techniques because of the very nature of this learning practice changes the information.
As Wayne Dyer often quotes, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
And it’s true.
When you look at a foreign language word and use memory techniques, it looks completely different than when you don’t use them.
Because when you don’t use memory techniques, you take the word as a whole.
But when you use something like the Magnetic Memory Method, you breaking the word apart.
You start thinking creatively. For example, what happens if I attach this part of the word to Al Pacino?
What about if I attach this other part of the word to Homer Simpson?
And what if I have them doing something together to help me remember the meaning of the word?
Doing This Makes Learning Tastier Than Candy!
The learning process becomes like liquorish in a candy store. You just can’t help but suck on every last jawbreaker and you don’t want to chew it and you don’t want to swallow it because it tastes so good and you want to hold that wonderful taste of knowledge in your mouth much longer.
So you hold it in your mind much longer.
You become interested in the information in a completely different way.
The information becomes part of the theatre in your mind.
The information becomes a character.
The information becomes real.
But You Have To Give It 100% Of Your Attention
Not 25% percent of your attention.
Not scribbles on an index card attention.
Not passive spaced repetition software attention.
You’ve Got To Give It The Attention Of Your Entire Soul
And more than that, your whole mind, your whole imagination, your whole being.
So get out there.
Get prepared with a dedicated memory strategy and at least one solid Memory Palace and never forget:
“Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Read this book: