Reading Notes, part 1

The thing about transferring the highlights you make into reading notes is, it can be a lot of work. Especially if you have found a good source with a lot of material in it. As excited as we may be, this could be disconcerting. Speaking from personal experience, I have found it difficult in the last several weeks, getting all my thoughts on Taleb’s book, Antifragile, into my Obsidian notes. This was NOT because I didn’t like the book. On the contrary, I liked it well enough that I quickly got and read The Black Swan, Fooled By Randomness, and Skin in the Game.

The danger for me with books of this type is that I get so excited about the ideas in them that I want to run ahead and get more. So I either read more books by the same authors or I read their sources after mining the footnotes and bibliography. I’m pretty confident that I have understood the author’s point, so it may seem less pressing to work it out in writing, which is one of the benefits of taking notes on content when you haven’t decided what you think about it. The problem is, this sense of understanding I get from immersion in the ideas of this book I’m excited about isn’t permanent.

Right now I could probably speak pretty intelligently about Antifragile, explaining both what I agree with and what I don’t using examples from the text. A couple of years from now, I’m unlikely to be able to slip right back into this same level of engagement without a substantial reread of the book. This is where my notes will be invaluable. Although there may be additional things I might notice and new insights to gain by rereading the original text, I can save the state I’m in right now with the book by taking the time to record all my notes.

This is time-consuming! I’ve just begun writing about the third section of Antifragile, and I’ve already written over 3,500 words. I don’t write this much about every book I read, but as I said, I got a lot out of this one. If these reading notes end up running over 5,000 words (which is likely), they’ll probably be the source of a bunch of permanent notes; probably way more than I typically get out of a single book. I know it will be worthwhile, but it can still be a chore getting all this down in the document.

In addition to the time this takes, there’s that additional element of being “inside” the ideas in the text right now. Although I’m writing these notes for myself, I want to remember to write them for a “me” that may have forgotten some of the details. “The sea gets deeper as you go into it”, Taleb says (paraphrasing a Venetian proverb). My goal with these notes is to be able to use them to step more or less directly from shore into the deep waters; but I need to make sure I’ll be able to swim in those waters when I jump in.

I used a lot of my downtime, waiting in airports last week, to input a big chunk of the notes for this book. I’m not done yet, so I’m going to have to allocate some more hours to this, over the coming week or so. I find that it’s kind of important to not let myself get too far ahead of my note-taking, in my reading. At a certain stage, all the content in the queue can become overwhelming.

To restate it briefly, my process is typically that I listen to an audiobook of a title that’s available in that format, and then I highlight a print or kindle copy. I listen at somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 speed, so sometimes I listen more than once. Often I’ll run the audio again (sometimes even quicker) while I’m highlighting, just to keep me in the zone. In the past, I’ve tended to highlight only keywords so I can make notes on them when I return. Lately, I’ve begun highlighting some entire statements, if I want Readwise to find them and add them to my retrieval list (I’ll say more about this in another video). When I make my reading notes, I try to paraphrase. If I quote the author, I make sure to explain, interpret, and contextualize the quote. I’ve found that one of the most difficult things for me to understand, returning to notes after a long time away, is a naked quote that may no longer be as meaningful to me as it was when I first read it. Sometimes things are just less exciting after the initial moment, but I don’t want a valuable insight to be lost just because I failed to remind myself what it means and why it attracted my attention.

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