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Active reading with Readwise, Brainstory and Anki

5 min read

Lately I’ve been interested in active reading techniques and how we can turn the interesting information that we read into useful knowledge.

A lot of these ideas are influenced by Michael Nielsen’s article Augmenting Long-term Memory and Andy Matuschak’s ideas about self-guided learning.

In this blog post, I’ll talk about a few apps that I’ve been using to help me read more actively, think through ideas with brainstorming, and resurface those ideas with spaced repetition: Readwise, Brainstory and Anki. By using these tools, it’s possible to get more value out of the content that we read.

Readwise is great for active reading

Readwise is an app that lets you save highlights from the books, articles or documents you’re reading. The app then resurfaces those highlights over time, so you can retain the insights and important information.

Readwise has a separate app called Readwise Reader, which allows you to store articles, documents and other types of content that you want to read. It gives you a nice interface to do that reading across your devices, and makes it easy to highlight important information, which syncs over to the main Readwise app.

As an aside, Readwise Reader’s mobile app also has a great text to speech function, which means you can listen to your articles while you go for a walk or do the dishes. This is huge for me - it’s actually quite similar to my astro-sqlite-tts-feed side project that I have been working on.

Readwise Reader works great with longform YouTube videos too. When you add a YouTube video, the video plays in an embedded player at the top of the screen, and a transcript automatically scrolls below the video, where you can quickly highlight important information. This makes video watching more active, and makes it easier to save the key points. I did this with Dwarkesh Patel’s interview with Andy Matuschak. I was able to save quite a few insights from their discussion about self-guided learning.

Thinking deeper with Brainstory

Brainstory is a web app that guides you through a brainstorming session by asking thought-provoking questions. At the end of the brainstorming session, it generates a concise summary for you. This encourages you to think deeper and can help you turn your idea into something tangible and shareable.

In this Andy Matuschak interview, he mentions that the most important rule of active reading is asking questions about the content and answering them. When he mentioned that, I immediately thought of Brainstory, which I’ve been playing around with for the last couple of months.

I think Brainstory can be a useful tool in the active reading process. If you highlight interesting information in an article, you can copy and paste those highlights into the start of a brainstorming session, and then ask Brainstory to help you think through each highlight.

The process of thinking through each highlight can help you transform the content from something passive that someone else has written, into something that is more relevant and applicable to your own experience. For example, I did a Brainstory about the highlights in that Andy Matuschak video, and it helped me relate one of the insights to my own experience. You can read that Brainstory here.

I’m hoping that by transforming the original ideas into something new, I can retain the information more. If you’re interested, you can read my Brainstory about the Andy Matuschak video here.

This is just one possible use case for Brainstory. I think the idea of a guided brainstorming session, which helps you think deeper and then generates an ‘output’ summary that you can share and get feedback on, is really powerful. I’m excited to play around more with it and see where else it could be useful.

Spaced repetition with Anki for resurfacing ideas

One more thing that I’ve been exploring is spaced repetition for memorisation and resurfacing ideas. With an app like Anki, you can create flashcards and test yourself, and the app will retest you over longer and longer periods of time, to help the information stay in your long-term memory. If this is interesting to you, I’d recommend checking out the article Augmenting Long-term Memory. Use Readwise Reader if you want to listen to it using text to speech.

I think spaced repetition is another important part of the puzzle when it comes to active reading. After you read some material and highlight the interesting parts, and then ask yourself questions, you need to revisit the material in order for it to stay in long-term memory.

While spaced repetition is most popular for learning foreign language vocab, I’m keen to explore how useful it could be for resurfacing ideas in order to make new connections. For example, a few topics that I’m interested in are asynchronous communication in the workplace, using text-to-speech to listen to text content, and productivity techniques to do focused work. If I have flashcards related to these ideas, and I’m constantly circulating these ideas, then that could help me make new connections and insights.

Putting it all together

I’m pretty excited about the potential of combining active reading with Readwise, deeper thinking with Brainstory and spaced repetition with Anki. Hopefully it will help me get more value out of the information that I’m reading.

I actually planned this blog post in a Brainstory session. Brainstory has a great feedback function where you can share your brainstorm, and then other people can do a Brainstory in response. If the ideas in this blog post are interesting to you, you can do a Brainstory in response here. It will be a guided brainstorming session where it will ask you thought-provoking questions.

Originally published on by Larry Hudson