Once upon a time, words were sacred and inviolate…
Once upon a time, words were sacred and inviolate. There was nothing more sacrosanct than a book. Creasing the spine was bad. Spilling crumbs inside was worse. Letting the spine’s corner dip in the bath when reading was a catastrophe. I wasn’t very good at avoiding any of those, but that didn’t make them right.
The idea that I could add to a book? Words, drawings, comments, highlights? Inconceivable, might still be to some people. Which is a terrible terrible shame. Because different people learn in different ways. I need to engage and interact with what I’m reading for it to really sink in. It’s why I still prefer paper books. Modern research is inconclusive about whether reading on screen is faster or slower than reading on paper (here, here, here), but ebook annotation is like writing in stone. The Kindle lets you highlight or painfully engrave brief notes, but it’s not pleasant. And diagrams are right out.
So here’s how I read: with a pen in hand. And a highlighter. I use both often and with excitement. Usually not for novels, but sometimes. And there are a couple of tricks I’d love to share.
The first trick is simple: I read the table of contents and the index carefully, before anything else. The old saw about how to communicate is just as true for reading. Read what you’re going to read. Read it. Read what you’ve read.
To read what I’m going to read I read, pore over, the table of contents and the index. They tell me how the text is structured, the key ideas and even something of their relations. Critical to effective reading is getting inside the author’s mind, but that’s not why I’m reading: I’m reading to learn from the author. I don’t want to do both at once, lest I do neither well.
The second trick is simple too. It’s how I read what I’ve read and it’s called an Idea Index. In some respects, this is not a new idea (a quick Google will show that). It’s new to me though and it has fast become essential – I am much obliged to Cal Newport for pointing it out.
So what is an Idea Index? It’s simple. As I read the table of contents and the author’s index I make some initial note of what I think the big, most relevant ideas in the book are on a blank page somewhere in the book. Then, as I read the book, I add to this list. I put page numbers beside items and add new list entries as I go. When I’m done, I take a step back and review it. Often a book will be relevant to me in many different ways. By reading over my own personal index once I’ve finished, I capture again the full richness of the book I’ve read and not just the last chapter.
An Idea Index is also handy tool for future reference. Because you know and I know that the table of contents and author’s index are only sometimes useful and never efficient for finding the specific information you need in a book. In effect, the Idea Index lets me customize every book to me.
Now there are many other techniques one can use – the tome How to Read a Book has plenty. It’s tough going though. So instead I’ll share my Idea Index from Thiel’s “0 to 1”. It’s a good book that covers a lot of ground. Without having my own index I think I would have just wasted my time
Postscript: Zero to One – a distillation
- future -> “the world looks different to today” — ch1
- contrarianism — p13,20,22
- key to successful business: establish monopoly via innovation that differentiates — ch3
- rivalry distorts judgement — p38-41,43
- what makes a company valuable — p44,47
- characteristic drivers of a monopoly — p48-53,166
- network effects — p50
- importance of creation, focus — p53,56,90-91,166
- optimism/pessimism, definiteness/indefiniteness — p62-69,169-170
- planning and designing is not a sin — ch6
- secrets/focus/ideas — ch8, p165-166,171
- beginnings are important — p108,171
- organise structure to incentivise best –p102,113
- sales is hard but critical, distribution too — ch11
- technology/people complementarity — ch12
- 7 questions to evaluate an idea — p153-154, ch13
- plan to be the last mover in your market — p58,137,163
- social need != business opportunity — p164