For years now, I’ve been an advocate of note-taking, of marginalia (see here). It started with Ryan Holiday’s reading to lead and Robert Greene’s index card system. Since then, I’ve learned of Montaigne’s tendency to date stamp and summarise his thoughts on a book once he completed it. I’ve read Shane Parrish’s arguments for being a demanding reader. I’ve absorbed diatribes about the importance of progressive summation and compression. Recently, I’ve been thinking that I’ll try out Roam Research for my next non-fiction writing project–the whitepaper is particularly persuasive.
Yet, whilst I’ve always been a low-key advocate of such systems and practices, I’ve always struggled to remain a practitioner. For example, my most recent dead-tree reads are the second volume of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler biography and two of Steven Erikson’s Malazan prequel novels. Both have many folded pages, highlighted passages and scrawled notations. But all three are back on the shelf, notes un-extracted. Before that, over several years, I accumulated roughly eight thousand hand-written index cards. But because I couldn’t be bothered to transcribe them to .txt files, I ditched them–they went in the recycling box, not the bin, which must have been an interesting occurrence for whichever bin (wo)man came across them.
Nowadays, I read a lot on my Kindle. And I don’t do highlights. In part because the Kindle is a tad clunky, but mainly because I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Actually, I do know what to do with them–create a commonplace book, digital or analog. The thing is, I’m just not sure that it’s necessary for me.
No matter the mechanics, no matter my intent or ambition, I remain unable to find a sustainable system for creating a commonplace book. I’ve tried, but nothing takes. I like the enhanced interaction that marginalia yields–I think I’ll forever read dead-tree books with a pen, now–but I can’t for the life of me find a way to channel that practice and build a comprehensive piece of infrastructure with it. So, perhaps I just shouldn’t bother trying anymore?
Complicating my pivot to non-note-taking is my reading of Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. It’s settled a lot of anxiety I’ve had when it comes to books and reading, and it’s also provided assurance that I will be okay, even if I don’t note-take and create a dazzling commonplace like the Good Writer that I’m trying to be.
The upside to all this is that I can read more, faster. In 2019–across digital and dead-tree forms–I read about one hundred books. I’m on course for the same this year (I’ll probably do an annual reading post for 2020 that covers my reading for the period). The tradeoff, of course, is that I spend less time with whatever I happen to be reading. This is the exact opposite approach to the dogma I’ve been carrying around–see The faster I go, the less I see–and the conflict still makes me uncomfortable. But I’m going to try living with it for a while.
Nassim Taleb’s take on procrastination is making this approach easier. From Antifragile:
“Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad — at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity.”
Another thing that’s making it easier is a focusing on the concept of transience. In Eastern and Western philosophy, we are admonished to recognise the fleeting, temporary nature of existence. Friends that come and go. Feelings that manifest as the most important thing in the world one day and fade into irrelevance the next. So on and so forth.
Through this lens, my non-note-taking could be seen as a sort of philosophical surrender. Contrary: non-note-taking could also be seen as a symptom of my own chronic lethargy. For now though, I’ll give my self the benefit of the doubt and opt for the former.