Books & Notes

September 23 2021

I wanted to make a few notes about how to .. take notes on a book. These are ideas for 2021, a time when we all have too little fucking time to do anything. (Remember when there was time for things? Was that just a perception?)

So everything here seems as though it must be geared towards a time in which things take the shortest possible path, which still allows one to have insights, to retain insights, to develop ideas. Of course, the qualifiers at the end of the last sentence in essence require one to take a bit of a meander. It is far more efficient for me to take a nice long walk, to think out my thoughts, than to sit there and try to be “efficient” at a desk. And yet… and yet… tie is always of the essence now. It is weird.

[2020 provided a much-appreciated down time to some extent, and it was for me, as I believe it was for many people, a delightful rest. But now, it is late 2021. So…. Here we are again…]

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

—Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book

We have so little time, that I am just going to write the notes right into this post. (People don’t read these anyway; at least not right now… Who has time anyway?)

We start with my mind map from last year of Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book.

Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book

This is already challenging, so let’s break it down into the things that seem essential.

Taking the time to Extract the Wisdom Contained Therein

I remember having this idea really make an impression on me. I went to school in a sort of postmodern era, and although I did not really study this, I think it left me with a sense of textual relativism which Adler’s point here goes counter to. It’s this: that it is very easy to skirt over the important points of a book and the depth which the author has placed in the text. In a very good book, it may not be simple to extract it all. But it could stand the test of ages. It may take work to extract. It may change you. Don’t accept the first interpretation. Don’t just skate over the surface, and go “oh, sure. I got it,” without allowing yourself to be challenged. Without asking, “have I really gotten it?” Let the book teach you (but you also do so questioningly).

Start with Intention

First, ask yourself what you want to get out of the book. Why are you reading it? What do you want from it? How will it inform what you already know? Intention frames everything.

It would be nice to do this in book notes journaling. I regularly make notes about a book, but only during process. A little bit more journaling, and I could start with an internal story that could help here.

Types of Reading

Then he talks about three types of reading: inspectional, analytical, and synoptical.

Inspectional reading gives you a lay of the land. It starts to help you create a roadmap of what the author is trying to say, and superficially give you a sense of what the book is really about, and where it is really going.

Analytical reading is where you really dig in. You take notes, define terms, make notes, and ask questions.

Synoptical reading is where you relate the reading to other things you have read. You compare and contrast.

Let’s look at the analytical phase more in depth.

Analytical Reading

Here is a quick summary:

  1. What type of book is this? What is its subject?
  2. Inside the jacket, make a one-sentence summary of the book as a whole
  3. Make an outline of the themes and sub-themes. You can use the frontispiece or title page for this
  4. Ask questions of the author. And then, address them, answer them, as you go along…
  • Make a note of important terms. This is not quite these are as words or phrases. The terms are the important ones in the book that deserve particular definition and clarification. They are the ones that require specific disambiguation. Whose clarification will provide a deeper insight into the book itself, almost in the way in which a deep understanding of a cell will help you understand the organism.
  • Making notes helps you own the book. Have a conversation with the author. Do you agree? Do you want clarification?
    • Use margin notes
    • Turn end papers into a personal index (love this idea!)
    • Use the top and bottom of the page to summarize key ideas, and to ask questions
    • Underline things that matter to you
    • In the page edges, add page numbers that point back to related ideas

Questions You Could Be Asking

  • What of it?
  • Is this book true, in whole or in part?
  • What is this book about, as a whole? What are the arguments? Assertions? Main points?
  • What is being said in detail, and how? Structure? Substructure?

Never Being Done

My particular style of working has to accept that I will never, ever be done. That it is in my very nature to want to swing from branch to branch. I read ten pages of a really interesting book (or even a not very interesting book, perhaps), and it spirals me off into another interesting direction that I just have to follow.

Over the years, it has become apparent that there is some sort of sense to this. Among all the partially-read books and half-made notes, there was some sense being made. I tend to somehow synthesize. Ideas, for me, are emotional. People talk about not “being in your head,” and I sort of want to slap them. We need both. But anyway, I always have both, it seems, operating at the same time. Ideas matter to me. They have life. Vibrancy.

Like any neurodivergent (and who is not one, actually?), I have to find my way through the forest. Realizing that we are now more than 30 years out from our idealized notions of being the scholar with his perfectly formed notes and scores of well-read books, we realize that this has never happened. And yet, good ideas have come. So then, the question becomes: How do we let more of these good ideas come, more easily? How do we encourage that flow? How can we move them into a useful form, with the minimum of friction?

I realize that I might pick up The Art of Frugal Hedonism from the shelf up there, and read three pages. And that, somehow, will spark a different conversation in me, that somehow informs the book I thought I was going to read, which is on my table now: The Economics of Happiness. My mind will pull them all together, and make something new. There is a very clear intuitive, spatial, sort of relational nature which will pull interesting new relevance out of it.

Adler’s Thoroughness vs. My Mind

I am in love with the thoroughness of Adler’s system here, but I will never be able to adopt it, because it would require an incredibly thorough utilization of a book. He was a classics scholar, I think, and of course if you were taking apart say a single book (or a few) in a graduate seminar, this method would make the most sense when applied in toto. But it aint' happening in my world. Not like this…

…So how can I make best use if it, in my catch-as-catch-can, racing-along sort of way??

I must always see how I can have a racing-along version of things. Something that will get half done, and then left along the side of the road, as the monkey sees something else. It’s just how my mind works. And yet these structuring tools can be useful.

Everything must be used on the fly. Structures are there, but must be used quickly.

It’s Called Designing It For Your Own Mind

I think the appreciation of neurodiversity puts us in a different place than we were before. We are comfortable with a broader array of reference points. We are capable of dissecting things into their constituent parts, and deciding which parts we really want. Being more in feel, more sensorily tuned in, we are able to see what is really working, and what is not. We are able to tune in.

From this place, it becomes apparent that the previous order — the hyper-masculinist one — had become threadbare, has become dry and begun to rattle a bit, removed from the water of life, soul, and humanity. The head left to its own devices rattling around, like a desiccated brain inside a bone-dry skull, is not a good frame for humanity now.

I saw a kid of fifteen or so on Instagram yesterday, who in their profile described themselves as “asexual”. Can you imagine that happening twenty years ago? They would have been lost. Maybe twenty years ago they could have called themselves queer or gay or something, and that already was a move from ten years prior to that. The move to a multi-viewpoint society is not an easy or a steady one. It causes all kinds of reactions in people.

So that is a topic unto itself, that we are seeing this explosion of diversity of viewpoints, a mix-and-match set of options that some people will view cynically as the demise of the civilization, because they can lose their reference points in that fray. But it is not. It does not have to be.

Bits of Something

I almost always get so excited by ideas that I am reading that I do not finish the entire article, book, etc. Indeed, if I do finish it, it’s not necessarily that much more helpful. Have you noticed how the ends of books tend to have a lot of extra material that isn’t really as interesting, but that the author felt they might put in there, just in case?

My mind so jumps off from what is being said, and gets so many ideas, that I may as well run with them, because otherwise I will forget my ideas. Now there is a tension here, because I need to stick with what the person is saying for long enough to really try to stretch my own mind, and sometimes this means enduring a little boredom here and there, and this can be good also.

But in any event, I cannot expect to necessarily finish that much. This just has to be part of my system. Over time, I can gain a good understanding of a subject anyway. Oh and often with audiobooks, I will happily finish them. But so much of what I do, is about how I interact with the ideas, anyway.

With some books, they have so much depth to me that I cannot in any way finish them. The later works of Christopher Alexander are like this for me. I am not an architect and some of it is literally about how to buttress a wall or whatever, but they are so filled with beautiful theory about the nature of order and the relationship between the world and humans, that it is hard to resist.

So there is a balance: expect to “try” to finish things (to whatever extent); then, relax and find ways of making use of the ideas that come out of it.

In truth the reading process is always a back-and-forth conversation and assimilation of new ideas inside ourselves anyway. How does this impact you? How does it matter to you? What can be done with this? Those are the things we want to know.

Sometimes it is good to remember things, and lately I have been taking book notes in the little Drafts app on my phone. The idea of perfect notes is practically gone now, but I can make little memory joggers about the main points. Some books are more about good facts and stories, and some are more about ideas.

More about boredom and books

Boredom is awesome. It makes you have to sit with something for long enough to become it. Not just to skate above the surface of things. For a while I was putting my laptop away at night, and laying out the book I wanted to read. With pens, markers, etc., and my reading glasses. This was a great exercise. Although, again, I read so slowly in this manner that I hardly ever get through anything. Even Seth Godin’s The Practice, quite a small book, I did not get through, doing it this way. I had already gone through it all using the audiobook form, however.

So then the question is what are you going to do with these ideas, these things, these new ways of thinking?

Things you can get from a book:

  • Actual information, such as the names of parts of men’s fashion, or what The Emperor tarot card means
  • Thinking training, such as the principles in Ray Dalio’s Principles
  • Which trail to walk, such as East Bay Trails
  • New frameworks — and attitudes — such as Mahan Khalsa’s Let’s Get Real, or Let’s Not Play; I could also add… confidence
  • Beauty in the heart, such as the poems of Hafiz
  • Systems, processes, and inspirational ideas, such as Brock’s Change Here Now
  • Things you just can refer back to as a guidebook or kind of cookbook, such as ReSurfacing: Techniques for Exploring Consciousness
  • Meditations and beautiful ways of seeing and interacting with the world, such as Tartang Tulki’s Caring
  • Novel frameworks to apply to business, such as David Hawkins' Success is for You

How books are used

  1. New frameworks are things that help change or expand my thinking, but then I may refer back to them in the text; or I may just have them affect my mind
  2. Jumping-off points for new ideas and writing of my own; either new pathways, or sometimes, validations — both of which can create new journeys and pathways of my own
  3. Little guides that you can just refer back to as you want or need them
  4. Something that just softens your soul, or creates new ways inside of one, whether you remember it or not (so often, I feel that new learning has affected me, and I cannot always remember where it came from!)

How knowledge affects one

We cannot consider what types of notes to make (or reading in general) without considering what books can do for us, what knowledge can really do for us. How do we really assimilate information?

I would love to spend the next four hours reading about this, but I think it is like this, I guess:

  • I refine, strengthen, or reformulate existing mental models, frameworks, etc.
  • Occasionally, brand new ideas, frameworks come into my mind…
  • Or probably more often, new reading will color my thinking about something in a new direction; I think that can be very positive; or even negative, perhaps?
  • But I think it is important to mention that what someone else says may spin me off into a direction that I care about, but is not even directly related to what the person is writing about; for example, when I read some of Chris Alexander’s work, what it starts me thinking about is not architecture, but the way that systems thinking is beginning to inform all sectors of knowledge, if you know where to look for it; in other words, I use it as scaffoldings for my existing understandings; this is a little bit more than just “adding to my understandings of a subject”

So, I suppose the features and functions are to:

  1. Refine or flesh out mental models (not necessarily related to the purported subject)
  2. To color my thinking and understanding, almost the way poetry can do this, or the positive influence of a kind person, or the way a piece of art can
  3. To, then, facilitate further thinking and understandingwhatever that is
  4. Ah, right — also, to assimilate facts and terminology which allow me to engage in existing conversations with others

It moves us to deeper understanding. It takes us further in the direction of meaning. Whatever the hell that is!

So, I suppose that in order to perform these functions, I need to…

  • Be willing to step outside my own skin for determined chunks of time
  • Really immerse myself in someone else’s world
  • Hopefully, remember certain facts and components of these things

As I reflected more on this I saw that we don’t really “learn” a subject, exactly the way I thought we did. And yet, we somehow do learn something. How does this work? It’s a little hard to say.

I realized that maybe I have not given fiction enough of a chance; since reading is never really such a linear process of internalizing a body of knowledge, then what we really do is have our thinking shaped by new mental models, colored by new ideas, attitudes, etc. THere is some interesting way in which people infuse themselves into the page (Mortimer Adler’s idea), and we are then colored by their influence. For my own way of seeing the world, it’s even possible that there is some sort of even more mysterious energetic process there. In any event, we are in a constant field interactions.

You may as well think about this poetically, and not entirely rationally. The thinking of Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning is helping me here, to think about how we tried to divorce reality from the liminal, but that left us with a cold, dead universe, and bereft of those very important poetical languages which actually animate our reality (whether they are literally animating physical reality, or not — which is one of his major points in the start of the book). In that case, we can embed ourselves in poetry and literature, as well, I suppose. The reason I have not, I think, is that I really wanted to know things. I want to understand them, and make them real, useful, practical. But then there’s this other part of me that wants to comprehend very deeply most all subjects, and this kind of sets up this tension, because, as I am beginning to realize, there is no real understanding, not maybe in quite the way I was hoping. That is, when you read a book about something it gives you ideas, understandings, knowledge, frameworks, and colorings, but you never fully “learn” a thing, in just such a concrete way as you perhaps wish that you could.


I guess that’s okay…

What am I not doing now, that I could then be doing?

If there is not absolute knowing, then the question is: what am I doing in my reading now, that could be improved? What do I really want to improve, actually? What can be improved, actually?

Retention. I know, you can never retain everything, but what can you retain? What systems or processes can you use, while you are reading, and adding notes, etc., that will give you better gains later on? What kinds of gains are actually possible?

  • It is nice to retain things for a conversation, such as facts, frameworks, ideas… and… even… quotes?
  • It is good to know just where something came from. It’s nice to give credit where credit is due.
  • It’s nice to be able to come back to certain key ideas, because it can remind you of their value, and from a new perspective, you can let the key parts re-infuse your life
  • Something I learned from Tim Ferris and Derek Sivers — they both said (in a conversation with each other) that they each refer back to and re-read things that really made an impact on them. This made a big impact on me; I was always in such a race to see how much volume of information I could absorb, that it did not occur to me the value of this. Quality over quantity! I have certainly been doing this more, over the past five years or so, since I learned this.
  • Maximal re-use means being able to (a) refer back textually to where you got something, but also (b) just have it impacting your life automatically. I guess (a) is really nice but not necessarily that critical to get right all the time (maybe just a little bit of improvement…). And that (b) may be something about re-visiting things deliberately.


This is one of the skills that Tony Buzan pointed out to me years ago. A version of this suggests the following sequence:

  1. Review 10 minutes after study
  2. Review no later than 24 hours later
  3. Review no later than 1 week later
  4. Review 4 weeks later
  5. Review 3-6 months later

He also likes mind maps, and memorization methods such as the journey memorization method, where you can key the learning to a little story in your mind.

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© Alexander Feller 2018