Category: Reading

Stephen King On Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Lovecraft & More

Stephen King speaks on a number of topics and takes questions from students, faculty and others in a “Master’s Class” at UMass Lowell.

I sometimes think that people don’t challenge themselves very hard to read stuff that’s a little bit more textured or nuanced. … And then sometimes I think that the people (who) are defenders of what they call literature, feel like a book has to be a ignored if it reaches more than 750 readers.

The Top 3 Most Effective Ways to Take Notes While Reading

Taking Notes While Reading

 

There are three steps to effectively taking notes while reading:

  1. At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also, note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.
  2. Pick up the book again and go through all your notes. Most of these will be garbage but there will be lots you want to remember. Write the good stuff on the inside cover of the book along with a page number.
  3. (Optional) Copy out the excerpts by hand or take a picture of them to pop into Evernote. Tag accordingly.

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I’ve been asked to how to take notes while reading a lot. Often what people are really getting at is how can I better focus, retain, and use what I’m reading. And taking notes while reading can supercharge all of these things if you do it right. However, when we’re taught how to read read, we’re not allowed to write in books. So we never really learn a system for taking notes that we can use as adults.

The first step to taking notes is to figure out why you are taking notes. If you’re studying for an exam your notes are going to look different than if you’re reading for entertainment. The way you take notes depends on the reason you’re taking notes.

Learning something new as an adult is a function of consuming information (what you read and how you read), the information you retain, and your ability to put what you learned into practice (recognize patterns). For this, I use a simple three-step note-taking process that scales up to 150 books a year.

Like almost everything in life, there is no magical answer that fits everyone. You’ll have to do a bit of trial and error and take what works for you.

Taking Notes While Reading

Step One.The first thing I do when I pick up a book is read the preface, the table of contents, and the inside jacket. Often, I’ll glance over the index too. This doesn’t take long and often saves me time, as a lot of books do not make it past this filter. Maybe it doesn’t contain the information I’m trying to gain. If it seems crappy, I’ll flip to a few random pages to verify.

This filter is a form of systematic skimming. This isn’t my term, Mortimer Adler, a guy who literally wrote the book on reading, came up with it. Adler says there are four levels of reading. I tend to blend inspectional reading and analytical reading together for most books.

This way, when I start reading a book, I have an idea what it’s about, the main argument, and some of the terminology involved. I know where the author is going to take me and the broad strokes of how they will bring me along. That’s very useful information.

While reading, I take notes. I circle words I need to look up. I star points that I think are critical to the argument. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I comment like a madman in the margins. I try to tease out assumptions, etc.

Essentially, I’m trying to engage in a conversation with the author. Maybe my questions will be answered on the next page or in the next chapter. Maybe I’ll need to find another book to answer them. Who knows. But I write them down.

At the end of each chapter, I write a few bullet points that summarize what I’ve just read. When I’m done, I write a brief summary of the entire book and then I do something few other people do. I let the book age.

I put the book on my desk and I won’t touch it for anywhere from a few days to a week. This is very important.

Step two.
When I pick the book up again, I re-read every scribble, underline, and comment I’ve made (assuming I can still read my writing). Sometimes I can’t.

I’m not the same person I was the first time I read the book, two things have changed: (1) I’ve read the entire book and (2) I’ve had a chance to sleep on what may have seemed earth-shattering at the time but now just seems meh.

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Sometimes, and this depends on the book, I’ll create a sort of mental summary of the book’s main arguments and gaps. Sometimes I’ll cross-link points with other books.

Step 3 (optional but highly effective).
Wait a few days. Then go through the book and copy out excerpts by hand and put them into your repository or commonplace book. I use these notes to connect and synthesize ideas as I read.

To aid recall, connect the ideas to something you already have in your mind. Is it a continuation of the idea? Does it replace an idea? Is it the same idea in a different discipline? I add these connections to my notes and percolate them in my mind. Often I turn out to be mistaken but that’s the process.

Most of the time, you get to see the ideas on Farnam Street. You can see how I connect and contextualize ideas, linking them across disciplines. I find writing about the ideas really helps me develop my understanding.

Even if you don’t share your thoughts with millions of people you can do the same thing with Evernote, which is searchable, easy to use, and free. Personally, I do not use technology as a substitute for the non-technological approach mentioned above but rather as a compliment.

I rarely listen to books but if you are listening to a book, create a new note for that book and type in notes as you are listening. I know a few people that do not take notes as they are listening because they listen in the car on the way to work. They find that sitting down right away when they get to work and typing up notes is an effective way to improve recall although the notes are less accurate.

If you liked this article, you’ll love our helpful guide to reading better. 

Neil Gaiman on The Importance of Reading, Libraries, and Imagination

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

— Albert Einstein

Neil Gaiman, who brought us one of the best commencement speeches ever, chimes in on with a lecture explaining why using our imaginations is an obligation for all citizens.

The correlation between illiteracy and prison growth.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

Literacy is more important now then ever.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

On fiction as a gateway drug.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key.

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[W]ords are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

[…]

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. […] Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

This reminds me of Keith Oatley, who when explaining the role of fiction in our lives employed the metaphor of a flight simulator. A flight simulator allows pilots-in-training to safely and quickly learn how to deal with all sorts of problems that might happen in the air. Fiction, Oatley argues, “allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.”

How well-meaning adults can kill a love of reading.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant. … Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around.

Science fiction makes its way to China and the importance of imagination.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

On the value of libraries and why anyone who sees them as nothing more than a shelf of books misses the point.

[L]ibraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

On moving from an information scarce society to one overloaded.

Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut.

Books are a gateway to making friends with the eminent dead.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

Our obligation to daydream.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different

The Best Way to Find More Time to Read

There is no question I’m asked more often than “how do you find the time to read so much?” or “how can I find more time to read?”

Let me share with you how I find time to read, learn, and give myself an advantage.

Finding Time to Read

Everyone looks at my reading list and assumes that I either have no life or speed-read.

When I tell people that I do have a life and I don’t speed-read, the question becomes: what’s your secret? How do you find more time to read than the average person?

Well, first, there is no secret. As simple as it sounds, finding time to read boils down to choices about how you allocate your time. And allocating your time is how successful people increase productivity.

In a good week, I can read three to five books. Sometimes fewer. I’m an average reader, likely within one standard deviation in terms of speed and retention. In short, I’m no different from you when it comes to how fast I read.

For example, while remarkably enjoyable, Blood and Beauty consumed almost a week. I was incredibly slow reading Seneca’s Epistles 1-65, and even slower with Antifragile. These are books I don’t want to rush. On the other hand, I can cruise through something like Fate of the States in an afternoon.

When reading, I generally take notes. I’m underlining, synthesizing, asking questions, and relating concepts from other things I’ve read.

After I finish a book, I let it age for a week or two and then pick it up again. I look at my notes and the sections I’ve marked as important. I write them down. Or I let the book age for another week or two.

Finding More Time to Read

Let’s look at this another way. Rather than say what I do, I’ll tell you what I don’t do.

What gets in the way of reading?

I don’t spend a lot of time watching TV. (The lone exception to this is during football season, when I watch one game a week.)

I watch very few movies.

I don’t spend a lot of time commuting.

I don’t spend a lot of time shopping.

These choices are deliberate. I don’t even have cable TV. I watch NFL through Game Pass, which also saves time (if you don’t watch games live, you can watch the full game in under 30 minutes).

I live downtown; I can walk to the grocery store, purchase a bagful of groceries, and return home all within 15 minutes.

If you assume that the average person spends 3–4 hours a day watching TV, an hour or more commuting, and another 2–3 hours a week shopping, that’s 28 hours a week on the low end.

Twenty-eight hours. That’s 1,680 minutes. That’s huge. If you read a page a minute, that’s more than 1,600 pages a week.

Books Are Important

Few things are as rewarding as making friends with the eminent dead. Reading isn’t something to be done once a week to check a box; it’s something to do every day.

If you’re a knowledge worker, you’re paid to use your brain, so it’s in your best interest to make that brain as big as possible.

Wherever I go, a book is not far behind. It might be on my phone or physical, but there is always a book close by.

Finding time to read is easier than you might think. Waiting for a bus? Stop staring down the street and read. Waiting for a taxi? Read. On the train? Read. On the plane? Read. Waiting for your flight? Read.

What I read depends on the situation.

If I know I have only a few minutes, I’m not going to read something that requires a lot of mental context switching to get back into. I’ll keep it simple, with something like Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success or Grow Regardless. Waiting around is also a great time to read magazines and printed copies of articles from the web. These tend to be short, rather disposable, and easily digested.

Early in the evening, say around 8 or 9, I’ll grab a glass of wine and sink into something serious. Something I want to read without interruption. Some nights I’ll read well past midnight; other nights I’ll stop reading around 10 or 11.

I’ll then do a little bit of blogging and plop myself into bed and read till I fall asleep.

Sometimes I’ll read something light before going to bed, and sometimes I’ll read something requiring more thought so I can ponder an idea while I’m falling asleep.

When I’m not reading, I’m trying to think about what I’ve just read. I don’t pull out a book while I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store. While everyone else is playing the “which line is longer game,” I’m toying with something I’ve read recently.

Ignorance is more expensive than a book.

Investments

The biggest problem with reading so much is money.

Books are expensive. I often joke that the only group I’m in the 1% of is Amazon customers.

After I graduated from university, I made a choice that I’ve rarely deviated from: I don’t worry about any money spent on books. I’m not alone. I know other people do this, too.

The first thing I did when I started making money was to call my younger brothers and tell them that until they graduated high school, I’d buy them whatever books they wanted as long as they promised to read them. As many as they wanted; whatever they wanted.

Why Do You Read?

Some people read for entertainment. Some people read to acquire knowledge. Some read for both.

To me, reading is more than a raw input. I read to increase knowledge. I read to find meaning. I read for better understanding of others and myself. I read to discover. I read to make my life better. I read to make fewer mistakes.

To borrow words from David Ogilvy, reading can be “a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life.”

Remember the tagline of this website: Mastering the best that other people have already figured out. That’d be nearly impossible without reading. In fact, it is largely through reading that we walk this path.

We’ve been recording knowledge in books for a long time. That means there’s not a lot that’s new; it’s just recycled old knowledge. Even Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile, points out that several ancient philosophers grasped the concept of antifragility. Odds are that no matter what you’re working on, someone somewhere, who is smarter than you, has probably thought about your problem and put it into a book.

In The Prince, Machiavelli writes, “A wise man ought always to follow the paths beaten by great men, and to imitate those who have been supreme, so that if his ability does not equal theirs, at least it will savor of it.” That’s not to say that this is the only way, but why not start with the best thinking that has come before you? Seneca, on the same subject, wrote, “Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides.”

The Library

When I get into detailed discussions on my book buying habits, people often ask why I never use the library. “Think of all the money you’d save,” they say.

The truth is, I keep most of the books I read and I go back to them. “If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks,” writes Ryan Holiday, “you might want to examine what you are reading.” I take that one step further: If you’re not keeping what you read, you probably want to think about what you’re reading and how.

While not impossible, it’s harder to have conversations with library books. You can’t pull out a pen and write in the margin. You can’t highlight something. Having conversations with books is one of the ways that I learn.

“The rich invest in time, the poor invest in money.”

— Warren Buffett

If you wanted to look something up again in a library book, you’d have to get in your car and drive back to the library. But how much time have you spent now driving back and forth?

How do you value your time? We can make more money; we can’t make more time.

Charlie Munger, voracious reader, billionaire, and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, once commented: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

It’s pretty simple: Either you read or you don’t. If you read, you probably want to do it more. If you don’t read, I’m not going to convince you to put down the remote.

Reading more isn’t a secret. It comes down to choices.

Warning: Side effects of reading more may include (1) increased intelligence; (2) an uncomfortable silence when someone asks you what happened on Game of Thrones last night and you say “Game of what?”; (3) better ideas; and (4) increased understanding of yourself and others.

So what are you waiting for? Cancel your cable and buy some books. Looking for a place to start? Try here or here. And here.

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How to Choose Your Next Book

If you’re wondering what to read, here are two simple ideas that we can combine to help us choose what to read next.

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Are you making the most of your reading time?

While I read a lot of books that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how I read. I constantly ask myself if I’m making the most use of my limited reading time.

It turns out that most of the time the best way to improve your Reading Return on Invested Time (RROIT) is to carefully filter the books you read.

Here is the simple two-step process I use to filter books.

“The more basic knowledge you have … the less new knowledge you have to get.”

— Charlie Munger

1. Understand Deeply

Get back to basics. Understanding the basics, as boring as it sounds, is one of the key elements of effective thinking. A lot of people assume the basics are not important and never really take the time to learn them, preferring the sexiness of complexity. Understanding a simple idea deeply, however, creates more lasting knowledge and builds a solid foundation for complex ideas later.

Build your foundation. The key here is brutal honesty with yourself about what you really know. Take the time to do a Feynman One Pager on an idea you think you know really well. While easy, this process will reveal any gaps you have in your knowledge.

The multidisciplinary mind understands the basic ideas. Acquiring the basic mental models from multiple disciplines allows you to see things that other people can’t. You don’t need to understand the latest study in biology, but you sure as heck better understand the concept of evolution because it applies to so much more than animals.

Understanding the basics allows us to predict what matters. Put simply, people who understand the basics are better at understanding second and subsequent order consequences. Plus, how are we to have a chance of understanding complex ideas without a firm understanding of the basics.

Remember, the slightest wind blows over a house without a foundation.

2. The Lindy Effect

What has been will continue to be. The second idea is the Lindy Effect, which is just a fancy way of saying what’s been around will continue to be around. In his book Antifragile, author Nassim Taleb, who builds on the idea of Benoit Mandelbrot, writes:

For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy. So the longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live.

The nonperishable is anything that does not have organic or avoidable expiration dates.

Time can predict value. While produce and humans have a mathematical life expectancy that decreases with each day, some things, like books, increase in life expectancy with each passing day.

The perishable is typically an object, the nonperishable has an informational nature to it. A single car is perishable, but the automobile as a technology has survived about a century (and we will speculate should survive another one). Humans die, but their genes—a code—do not necessarily. The physical book is perishable—say, a specific copy of the Old Testament—but its contents are not, as they can be expressed into another physical book.

When I see a toddler walking down the street holding the hands of their grandparents, I can reasonably assert that the toddler will survive the elder. When something is nonperishable that is not the case.

Taleb writes:

We have two possibilities: either both are expected to have the same additional life expectancy (the case in which the probability distribution is called exponential), or the old is expected to have a longer expectancy than the young, in proportion to their relative age. In that situation, if the old is eighty and the young is ten, the elder is elected to live eight times as long as the younger one.

Here is a chart Taleb provides in his book:

Life Expectancy

The longer something non-perishable has lived, the longer we can expect it to live.

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years.

This is where Taylor Pearson helped me put something together that I was just too stupid to do myself. He connects reading to the Lindy effect.

Older isn’t better, it’s exponentially better. 

Lindy-Effect-Modeled1

Pearson writes:

If you were to look at a typical person’s reading list, the vast majority of books would be crammed into the recent, low-value portion of the curve while many fewer books would occupy the much larger high-value, older section of the curve.

So your ROI on reading and understanding a concept from 500 years ago is highly likely to be exponentially greater in the long run than one presented only 5 years ago.

What I’m trying to get at is that the more fundamental or closer to the source that you move, the better the ROI in the long run.

Understanding Time-Tested Ideas

So let’s combine these ideas and focus on reading basic ideas that have stood the test of time as a means to understanding them better.

Knowledge has a half-life. The most useful knowledge is a broad-based multidisciplinary education of the basics. These ideas are ones that have lasted, and thus will last, for a long time. And by last, I mean mathematical expectation; I know what will happen in general but not each individual case.

In the words of Charlie Munger, “take a simple idea and take it seriously.”

Seneca On Reading

The more I read Seneca the more I like the man.

I read Susanna Braund’s translation of De Clementia in 2011 but never got around to reading more. My mistake.

Writing in Antifragile, Nassim Taleb says of Seneca:

His work has seduced people like me and most of the friends to whom I introduced to his books, because he speaks to us; he walked the walk, and he focused on the practical aspect of Stoicism, down to the how to take a trip, how to handle oneself while committing suicide (which he was ordered to do) or mostly, how to handle adversity and poverty and, even more critically, wealth.

Searching my bookshelf for what I could find on Seneca, I settled on the epistles, in which he writes about moral and ethical questions, relating to personal experiences.

While many of these have been lost, 124 exist.

On Discursiveness in Reading

I thought this brief passage, from Seneca, IV, Loeb Classical Library Edition, offered something to think about this weekend.

The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends. And the same thing must hold true of men who seek intimate acquaintance with no single author, but visit them all in a hasty and hurried manner. Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.
[…]

Each day acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes as well; and after you have run over many thoughts, select one to be thoroughly digested that day. This is my own custom; from the many things which I have read, I claim some one part for myself.