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Veronica Erb on Annotating Books

“For a certain kind of reading and a certain kind of understanding, I can’t read without taking notes and I can’t take notes without reading.”

Veronica Erb is the author of Finding Out, an email newsletter for people who do and use UX research. Previously, she led UX research at NPR and consulted with a variety of companies. In this conversation, we discuss Veronica’s reading and note-taking practices.

Since we recorded this, Veronica published a post with photos and screenshots of her notes. The link is in the show notes, in case you want to see what she’s talking about.

Show notes

Show notes include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.

Transcript

Jorge: Veronica, welcome to the show.

Veronica: Thank you so much.

Jorge: Well, I’m excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself?

About Veronica

Veronica: Sure! My name is Veronica Erb. I’ve been practicing user experience research for 10 years. Most recently, I was leading design research at NPR for their digital products, like the website, various apps, car apps, things like that. And lately, I’ve been writing a newsletter called Finding Out. And it’s my attempt to teach UX research the way I like to learn.

And the way I like to learn is through narrative and stories more than how-to’s, and also through principles rather than lots of succinct methods that I have to memorize. I’d rather learn through what’s behind good research rather than what specific research things look like. So I’ve been playing with the ways where I can say a lot through stories that people can kind of pick up and remember more naturally than stuff they might need to reference step-by-step guides to.

Learning through narrative

Jorge: I find that fascinating. Do you have an example you can share with us of something that you’ve learned primarily through narrative or story?

Veronica: Yes! Although it’s… it’s embarrassing because I try to avoid telling stories about my childhood because I look so young! But here we go! We’re going to do it anyway. The first time I remember this happening was at the zoo and I might’ve been eight years old. And they had these carts in front of each of the different areas of the zoo, and they were asking trivia questions. And if you answered the trivia question right as a kid, you would get a prize. And they asked us a question about plankton. And the reason I knew the answer to what plankton was was because it was in a Boxcar Children book. When the four kids — so many people have read these books — get adopted by, I think it’s their grandfather? Anyway, they go on this cruise and each have little notebooks, which is related to what we’ve been doing, where they write all their lessons in it. And while they’re on this cruise, they learned about plankton. And I knew it! And so I got the answer right at the zoo trivia thing. And it was just like, “whoa! I learned something from something that wasn’t true, but I learned something true from it!” And that just kind of always stuck with me.

Jorge: I think of this notion of learning through narrative and story — and you also mentioned principles — I’m thinking of it in contrast to maybe memorizing facts. Is that a good distinction there?

Veronica: Yeah, exactly. I remember what a revelation it was to… I went to Grinnell College which is a liberal arts school. And just how different that sort of learning was, where it was discussion-based and you would be connecting things versus the kind of learning that we did in my community in the states. From memorizing facts, just being… you know, having to answer the short answer questions and all those tests. Like, when did this happen? What year did that happen? And the only way I know what year certain things happen is if I kind of make a story out of it. Connect it to other things.

Jorge: I get the sense that you are someone who has very consciously continued your education even after college. And I was hoping you could tell us a bit more about that. Personally, I think that it’s not common for people to continue like purposefully driving their education after they graduate, so I’m always curious when I hear of someone who is actually doing it.

Veronica: I think it’s part of just like my nature and growing up. Like, I’ve actually written about… I think I’ve written about this in the newsletter, if not, I’ve thought about it. When we would go to movies as kids, my parents and my brother and I would go to the movie, and then on the way back from the movie, we would discuss what their favorite parts were and what we thought this part meant. And like all these sorts of things. And I think that just carried forward in my life.

So, after college… first, I started adding back reading novels because, you know, Boxcar Children was to where it started, but I loved reading novels up until sort of my schoolwork got to be too big for me to take that time for reading for pleasure. And then after school, after I was out of it, I was like, “reading! That was cool! I liked that! Maybe I should do that some more!” And so, then the more I started getting that muscle back, of being able to focus on reading a book and reading it all the way through, the more my interest in reading nonfiction things picked back up again.

I think attending a book club also really helps. Both in DC and now in St. Louis, I’m part of book clubs through the public library. And both book clubs… it’s kind of weird that they’re so similar to one another, but it’s people who want to read a variety of books. So we read, half the months of the year a novel, typically, and then the other half we could have mixed up with non-fiction, memoir, poetry occasionally.

And, I don’t know — I feel like I learn important things everywhere. And then I get curious about them and I look into them and I ask myself, “what was my favorite part? And what did this part mean?” Because I’ve always been asking that. But I also just want to… I want to understand why we do the things we do and why some people don’t do the things that I wish they would do. I want the world to be better.

Critical thinking

Jorge: When you say “understanding why people do the things that we do,” at what level are you talking about? I mean, it sounds like writ large, right?

Veronica: Oh, yeah. Just about in any context. When you asked that my first thought was a talk I finally got to see danah boyd present in person at a conference for… did you know that there’s such a thing as a UX librarian?

Jorge: I did not know the phrase until now.

Veronica: This made me so happy because of course like, IA came out of librarians. Of course, you know that, obviously, Jorge. But, it’s now come full circle and there are people who work in libraries, especially academic libraries is my sense, who are trying to bring UX approaches into their library.

Jorge: Ooh!

Veronica: Yeah, I should hook you up with these people. They’re so fun! But it’s just like a tiny little conference that’s stuck onto the side of a really big conference for like database librarians. So it’s like two hundred people, at least when I went a few years ago and gave a talk. And so, danah was at the other conference and we got to attend her talk. And one of the things she talked about was an anthropologist who went and spent time with people who were Trump voters and who were also doing a Bible study. And she was trying to understand how did they understand what Trump was saying? And like, why did they interpret his words the way they did. And what this anthropologist found was that they were using the same sort of literacy — the Bible literacy — that they were using on his words and his rhetoric.

And that was sort of what they were tracing it back to. But danah’s talk was about like, how do we have these folks who are human beings who are making really grave errors in how other people work. And she also told a story of these teenagers who ended up getting pulled into alt-right rhetoric and how they’re actually asking themselves the same kind of questions that we teach people to ask when we teach critical thinking. And she’s like, “we’re getting something wrong. I don’t know what it is. But this kid was smart and he was asking himself questions and he was like interrogating what he was looking into. And it brought him deeper into this kind of thinking rather than out of it.”

And so, she gave you this amazing, very compelling talk, and was like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong. I know there’s something wrong.” But that really catches my attention because I feel like I come to my conclusions because of that critical thinking, liberal arts kind of approach that I knew outside of school before I got to Grinnell, but I really enjoyed at Grinnell. But it’s interesting to hear her perspective that like, that’s not it.

Jorge: I’m curious about whether the thing that these folks were getting wrong was… were they reading into Trump’s words based on the principles that they had from the readings of the Bible? Is that what’s implied?

Veronica: It was, yeah. It’s hard for me to articulate because it’s been a while since I’ve read it and listened to her, but it was basically like… I believe these were folks who believe that what is said in the Bible is, a sort of word-for-word truth, as opposed to what a lot of people read the Bible as to be parables, morals, like, ways of living. Whereas these folks were kind of reading them as like, “no, this is what happened, word for word, and this is exactly what I should do.” Like, they weren’t interpreting it, they were those words as strict… but it was also this sort of complex thing where it was about more of like emotions than truth. I don’t know. It’s very complicated and not my expertise. But it got me thinking about like, “oh! I’m not thinking about all these people right!” like, “there’s more here.”

Jorge: If I might read back into that, it sounds like your model of how they were parsing the texts did not correspond with how you yourself parse the texts.

Veronica: Right.

Jorge: I actually wanted to get into that because I know that you do a lot of reading, you’ve already told us about that. And I wanted to hear more about how you parse meaning from the texts. How do you go about reading a book?

Annotating books

Veronica: Yeah. Great. Okay, so I was trying to think about this in advance because it’s a very…. what I have found for my note-taking and for my understanding of information is if I get too thoughtful about it, I very quickly make a system that is more work than benefit. Because you know, I am an IA. One of my hearts is information architecture. And so, it becomes unwieldy pretty quickly. So I try instead to have these small methods and then I reach for them when I need them.

One example, I have a stack of books here next to me, is_ Bad Feminist_ by Roxane Gay. And we were reading it for book club, so I had a copy of it that the library gave me. And I was like, “okay, you know, book club, I’m really excited to read this. I’ve always wanted to read Roxane Gay.” And I was like halfway into the first essay and I was like, “oh man. I need a copy of this book. I have to write in it!” I put it down and I waited until the next day when my favorite bookstore opened and I went and got myself a copy of the book because there’s a certain kind of… especially nonfiction writing that I really need to be drawing in the book in order to really take in the information. So, that is one of the things I do.

Jorge: When you say “drawing in the book,” are you literally making doodles?

Veronica: Sometimes. Let me find… there’s one in here, which I don’t remember making, and I don’t remember this particular part, but I took the time she described where she lived. And then she said that she drove south to St. Louis or north to Chicago or east to Indianapolis from where she lived. And in the little margin, I drew a teeny tiny little diagram of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, and where she was and like little arrows. It’s not a very important detail, but there was something about the way she described it that made me take a moment and doodle that in there.

I have a better example of when that was useful and that I actually have looked back at to help me understand, which is in this fabulous… The Foundations of Social Research by Michael Crotty, where he takes lots of different epistemologies and just philosophies of understanding things and summarizes them in a transparent but still sort of dense way. And so down here… here it is! This little diagram of…

Jorge: And listeners can’t see, but Veronica is showing me on the Zoom screen a little diagram in the margin of the page. And it looks a little bit like a comic or a cartoon with speech bubbles. Do you want to describe what’s going on there?

Veronica: Yeah. So, in the text, he’s describing what objectivist, constructivist, and subjectivist etymologies are, which I was super interested in because one of the things I’m trying to figure out is how to talk about qualitative and quantitative research in a way that aligns with my experience, but isn’t just based on my experience. And it’s based on something stronger and meatier than that.

And so, in this part of the text, he’s talking about these different ways of attributing meaning to the world. And so I drew… to try and summarize it for me, I drew… objectivists say that a tree is a tree because it’s a tree. And so in the little picture I have a tiny little tree, that’s like a blob on top of a stick. And then there’s a speech bubble from the tree saying, “tree!” Whereas constructivists say that because there’s a person there, the person and the tree had this sort of little conversation. And so, I have arrows and the tree’s speech bubbles coming from the arrows because it’s the… kind of construction of meaning between a person and a tree. And then last, the subjectivists are kind of odd. It’s like… meaning only exists because there is a person. And so there’s nothing in the tree that makes it tree-like? It’s just the person. And so, my speech bubbles coming from like the person’s thoughts I think?

But what’s cool about this from a note-taking standpoint is if I didn’t have this little diagram here right now, I wouldn’t have been able to summarize that for you. But it brought it back for me. And when I come in and I picked this text back up, because it’s so dense, I don’t tend to read it for long periods of time. I can review that and be like, all right! I’m back in it! I’m going to keep going and read some more of this, like text that’s for a class that you would have a professor leading you through, but I’m just reading because I really want to explain something that makes sense to me in my, industry practice of UX research.

Jorge: I was going to ask you about that. So, you go through the trouble of reading the book, to begin with, and then read it actively. in that, drawing looked fairly elaborate in the sense that it required really thinking about what you were reading to actually summarize it like that. What do you do with this stuff? I mean, what’s the point? I’m thinking someone might say, “well, you read the thing, you draw in it, and then you put it back on the shelf, and there it stays.” What do you do with this stuff?

Reading and marking

Veronica: Well, I mean, I picked this one back up, right? So it’s helping me come back to the text. I am reading this because I eventually want to write about it in my newsletter, or on the internet at large. To try and share… I feel like I’m trying to understand a thing that a lot of researchers who appreciate and advocate for qualitative research or trying to explain. And maybe if we could just explain it well, then we could move on with our lives. But the note-taking like… actually the thing that I feel captures it best or that I encountered it was in… have you read _Word By Word _by Kory Stamper?

Jorge: No, I have not.

Veronica: It is her story of how dictionaries get made.

Jorge: Ooh, that sounds interesting.

Veronica: It’s fabulous! It is so fun. I read it on vacation, at some point. But she kind of tells you how she came to be a lexicographer and what she encountered there and all those language lessons there. But one of the things she talks about, and it is part of the process of writing dictionaries, is called “Reading and Marking.” all of the lexicographers have periodicals that they read, and when they read them, they don’t just read them. They mark them too. And basically what they do is they’re looking for interesting words in ways that they can then take that little sample of that word and put it in a file so that later when someone is writing or updating the entry for that word, they have actual references in the language that they take the word from.

Like they don’t just sit there and think, “huh? How do I define ‘as’?”, which is a real thing they have to define in the dictionary. Imagine how hard that is! They actually look at examples and they decide what “as” means based on the examples. So, when she was describing reading and marking, she had this little footnote. And I was like, “Ooh, I love a footnote!” And so, I go and I read the footnote, and it’s because she said, “reading and marking is,” and she wanted everyone to know that “is” was not a mistake: “You don’t read without marking; you can’t mark without reading.” And that to me is what note-taking is in books. For a certain kind of reading and a certain kind of understanding, I can’t read without taking notes and I can’t take notes without reading. But it’s only certain things. I can understand a novel just fine without marking it up.

Jorge: So it sounds like it’s more for perhaps non-fiction work or like this book on lexicography… things that you might be reading for some kind of edification; perhaps for work or for your newsletter or what have you. I would like to unpack this phrase, “you can’t read without marking.” What do you mean? I mean, you read the thing, right? And ideas are coming into your mind, but why does that connect so much with you, this idea that you can’t read without marking?

Veronica: I think it’s about the density of the text. Every person who reads, I think, has [had] this happen where you read something and you know that you touched every word, and it went into your brain, but you can’t recall what you just read. It’s how I know it’s time for me to go to sleep at night! But that is very much the experience for me of reading a certain kind of text that doesn’t have a certain kind of narrative. And I kind of have gotten the intuition for when that’s happening, and if it’s important enough, I will go get a copy of the book and write it down. It’s like I have to turn the text into a conversation in order for it to kind of come into my brain in a meaningful way.

Jorge: And the conversation is happening between you and the author on the book’s pages?

Veronica: It sounds a little ludicrous, but…

Jorge: No, I can totally relate to this. I mean, I have books that I read where I’ll be pissed off at what the author is saying and I’ll write a comment like, “this is wrong!” You know, or whatever. And…

Veronica: Yeah, exactly.

Jorge: Yeah, so I can relate to this notion of having a conversation with a book. I’m wondering what you do with the annotations if anything. I mean… the note that you were showing there with the drawing, what do you do with that? I mean, you said you were working towards something for your newsletter. Are you then revisiting the text afterward and somehow synthesizing what you’ve read? Or like, what’s step two?

Veronica: Yeah… oh, you’re trying to find out what my process is.

Jorge: Yeah.

Veronica’s newsletter creation process

Veronica: Well, so that’s the thing: one of the tricky things for me is distinguishing between doing this for reading and doing it for a later purpose because this can be so inherent to my reading process. I would have so much work to do if I had to like, take a picture of every page and put it in a file or something. So, I think the best way that I know now to describe what it’s for is it’s part of my memory palace. Are you familiar with that concept? I think what I’m doing is I’m creating a memory palace of lots of books. Like it’s not this fun mansion that I’ve memorized and that I put things in, but I have this kind of… I’ll remember that there was an idea in Bad Feminist that’s interesting here. And I go get my copy and I flipped through it and I can find the note. It’s like I’m one of those folks who, when I would be taking a test, I’d be like, “oh no, I don’t know what the answer to this is! But I can tell you what that page looks like, that the answer is on.” I could sketch it for you. And I think that’s what this is, is sometimes I go back there… I think I wrote a piece on the newsletter that mentions Roxane Gay, and I went back and I flipped through and I just knew. “Ah! That’s the quotation that I want to pull.” And it’s here in this, in this moment. So they’re sort of there if I need them.

And then, if I do need them and I want them, and I want to take notes, I have a… for the newsletter, I have a OneNote notebook that I both draft and take notes in. OneNote is sort of my digital note-taking place of choice for the last few years. And, mostly I take notes in the same file, I guess we’ll call it a file, that I eventually draft the newsletter in. So, I take bulleted notes, and then those just get pushed down the page, which is also what I do when I’m drafting. If I’m drafting and I’m like, “this is terrible,” I just kind of push it down the page more because I might realize that I wanted a sentence or like, “there was that thing I was getting at earlier, and now I do actually want to put it in.” And so I pull it up. And I found that having one big file that just kind of grows and it’s like a reverse chronological document of where I was going, is the best way for me. If I make drafts and delete things it just gets messy in a different way; messy in a way that it’s hard for me to navigate.

Jorge: So it sounds like it’s just a dump in a single OneNote note that keeps growing as you read more.

Veronica: And I actually initially thought I was going to move notes from like… I call it “free-writing,” [which] is the initial stage. I thought I was going to move that to like, “this is an official draft now,” to, “this is ready to go in,” and, “this is cute!” and, “this is actually on the internet now.” And that turned out to be too… This is what I mean, I can IA systems that are going to be like… they sound great, but then they’re just more work than I want. And so now what I do is I just have that one document that kind of gets longer and longer. And then at some point, I’m like, “ah! This is good enough for the newsletter.” And then, once it goes into… I use Substack for my newsletter. Once it’s there, I don’t touch the OneNote anymore. And even if I’m making sentence-level edits in Substack, they’re just in Substack. And I know not to like reference what’s in OneNote anymore.

Jorge: The note in OneNote sounds like a starting point, a kindling… a scratch pad of sorts for the thing that will eventually move on to Substack.

Veronica: Yep. I was going to say, the other fun thing about what I do there is I ended up… that sort of drafts-ready sort of thing that I talked about? I did implement it, but I use emojis on the files. If there’s something… a file that I keep coming back to, I put the little light bulb emoji so that I can find it in a huge chronological thing. And then, once something gets sent out, I use the love letter emoji. And so I know I don’t have to look at that one anymore. And then there’s some that have neither of those emojis and that’s kind of like an idea that maybe I’ll come back to and maybe I won’t.

Jorge: This is in OneNote?

Veronica: Yup.

Jorge: So, the emojis are indicating state somehow. State of the note, yeah? I want to come back to this notion of memory palace, just because I want to be clear on it myself. It sounds like you are reading and making annotations in the texts, right? So there’s this notion of marginalia. And then you’re circling back through those and perhaps synthesizing those marginal notes into these OneNote notes, which then become fodder for the actual newsletter, which gets written in Substack. That’s how I’m understanding the process.

Veronica: Yeah! Although they only go into OneNote when I’m like, “I’m going to write a thing about this.”

Jorge: Right. So, it’s not that everything gets a OneNote note, right? It’s only the ones that seem like they’re going to become a thing in the world beyond living in this memory palace. And that’s what I wanted to circle back to. It sounds like the memory palace is not the OneNote stack of notes or the Substack where you share them with the world or what have you. It sounds like the memory palace really is in your mind. Is that right?

Veronica: Yeah. Because the notion of memory palace… It’s a metaphor in your head, right? Like, you have a home or a nature trail that you know really well, and then you… in your mind, place ideas and memories into that place. But apparently, my memory palace is just literally where I’ve remembered that things are. Which is part of why I think it’s important that I keep it relatively simple. But I’ll remember a certain book and I’ll just go look in the book. Or for the books that don’t warrant the next day trip to the bookstore, I have a OneNote notebook just called “book notes,” and then each section is named for authors rather than books because it would get even more unwieldy if I had one for each book. And so, then I just store separate notes there and that tends to be more for book club books, but… yeah, it’s kind of just remembering where things are, which works well for me as a person who still remembers learning about plankton in a Boxcar Children’s book when I was eight.

Annotating ebooks

Jorge: It sounds like you’re primarily reading paper books. Is that true?

Veronica: No, I actually primarily read e-books.

Jorge: So, how does that work? Because you can’t doodle in e-books, right?

Veronica: Yes. So there’s sort of this… there’s this like level of importance that a book has to get to be worth me getting a hard copy of it and drawing in it because I do read constantly and one of the problems I have now is if there’s a paper book that I want to read, but I don’t want to read it badly enough, I end up just carrying it around my house and then not reading it when I think I’m going to, and then I kind of burn out on the book. But if I have ebooks, then it’s always with me and I don’t have to worry about letting myself down that way. And I have even gotten to where there are some times I try not to buy books because otherwise, I’d spend a lot of money buying books. But sometimes there are times for our book club books where they only have a hardback copy and I need to have it on my ebook and so I end up buying it just because I’m like, “I’m not going to finish this if I don’t have it on my phone.” And I do highlight in Kindle — I use Kindle primarily. And I don’t tend to use those highlights as much. I tend to just search if there’s something I remember. But yeah, the chosen few, I actually dug out a few for you, as you can tell that get hardback copies or paper copies.

Jorge: I do something very similar, although I do a lot of reading in Kindle in part, because… Have you used Readwise?

Veronica: No.

Jorge: That’s been really helpful to me. So Readwise… I guess the best way to describe it is it’s an online service that syncs your highlights and notes.

Veronica: Oh, yeah, I saw you tweeting about it, and I was like, “Ooh, this sounds very interesting!” And then I realized it would very quickly overwhelm me if I did that, in part because I read so many novels. My highlighting in novels is really different from my highlighting in nonfiction books; it’s more about ideas or moments that I’m interested in. And I don’t really want to memorize them, so I’m sure there’s some sort of filtering that would work, but it sounds like a really cool tool.

Jorge: Yes, but to your point, that adds friction, right? Like you’re adding work to it. And I, that, and I agree with you. I think that, the easier you can make these things, the more likely we are to use them.

Veronica: Yeah.

Jorge: And it’s better to have an imperfect, yet highly-used system than one that is super precise but that becomes onerous, somehow.

What should you read next?

Veronica: I want to tell you about my novel reading life because, once I kind of got on a roll in my personal reading life and reading novels and things like that, I came to what is the trouble of every avid reader, which is what should you read next? Like when it’s for fun, it’s not as clear. Like, “oh, I need to read these 10 books to write this paper or write this piece that I’m working on.” And the trouble I found was that I had… I use GoodReads. And so, I would have this huge… hundreds of books that I was curious about, but there wasn’t an easy way for me to remember why I was curious about that book or like what kind of book it was. And so I was re-doing a lot of work of going and looking at the description. “Was this the book I wanted to read or was it that other re-written fairytale that I wanted?” And that sort of thing.

So, I finally gave in and I made my own note-taking system for my “TBR” list as some folks call it. And so I made myself a Google Survey. It’s just for me, and it has basic information about books. There’s also a section for who told me about this book: what did they say about it? And a link to what they said. And then there’s another section that’s what do I think I like about it? What might be challenging about it? And of course, what is needed on every survey, in every context, is, “anything else?” Because you can never foresee everything someone might need to tell you about something, even if that person is yourself. So, I have this great tool, and I open it in Sheets on my phone or my computer. And then I can actually go through and see… I put the category of the book it is and I can pick them out and update the status, like, “I have this on like library holds,” or not. And it’s totally changed my reading life because now I actually… I still have that problem with picking a book, but it’s way easier than it was before. And it’s because of those extra little context notes that the tools I knew of didn’t have a space for.

Jorge: Just hearing you describe it, it sounds like, “wow, that’s a lot of work!” You know, annotating what books you want to read. But it sounds like the payoff makes it worth your while, yeah?

Veronica: Exactly. So, yeah, but it’s also… I don’t have to fill out every field there, right? Like it’s there if I need it. I’m very loosey-goosey about it. Sometimes I take time to go clean it up. But, yeah, it’s definitely worth the effort of that being able to pick a book that I actually want to read instead of being like, “oh, I guess I’ll read this book because I need something to read.”

Jorge: That’s great. That sounds like a great tip for those of us who like to read. I do something similar. I use a DEVONthink as my primary repository for these things. And DEVONthink provides a lot of metadata fields. And one of them is kind of a free form comments field. And when I capture a book that I would like to read, I’ll usually do what you’re describing, where I’ll do a little note. I say, “well, this was recommended by Veronica,” or whatever, you know? And I try to tag it with enough context so that I can later come back to it.

Veronica: Yeah! Oh, and you know, what’s really lovely about that too is then we actually get it to go back to the people who told us about a book and tell them that we read it.

Jorge: Right.

Veronica: Like, connect with them. Because reading isn’t just about yourself.

Jorge: Well, one of the things that I do for my own newsletter is I use that comments field to acknowledge where I got ideas from in the newsletter. So, I’ll share links and I’ll say, “hat tip to whoever.” And I find that to be really valuable. And, the reason I like DEVONthink for this, because… one of the challenges that are inherent in what you’re describing here is that while the Google Survey is convenient, and you have this spreadsheet where everything is kept, it’s an artifact that lives separately from things like the OneNote notebook. So, one ends up having a federation of these little databases of things.

Veronica: Well, I think that’s why I think of the memory palace is like, “I know it’s there and that’s all I need to know, is that it’s there!” It doesn’t have to connect to OneNote.

Centaur note-taking

Jorge: Yeah. You’re the API for the thing somehow.

Veronica: That’s exactly it. And, you know, I think that’s… I actually had to value that about it. I talked with a person who diagnoses people with dyslexia. And she said, “yes, indeed, Veronica, you do have dyslexia.” And she doesn’t… she does these really cool in-depth diagnoses of like kids. But one thing she talked to me about was how what’s interesting about dyslexia is that people tend to be really good at connecting big ideas. And she was telling me that she thinks that’s because we have all this technology that lets us search more, folks who think like that are valued more than you used to.

And the reason this is connecting — sorry, I’m getting messy! — but before we had links and before we had search, you had to be able to remember what books something you read was in, right? Like I’m thinking of Jane Austen and sitting in the library and I’ve remembered reading the books and that had to be part of the process. But now you can kind of skip that and use the technology to remember for you and link for you. Which I think is cool and powerful, but I also think it’s good for my brain to have a little bit of that knowledge, too. And to not completely break down when my tech breaks down or when my, you know, my phone battery dies!

So, for me, at least I like this hybrid where I’m using my brain and my notes. And you know, I do kind of manual links if I have something in OneNote that there’s a spreadsheet for, I put a link up at the top. I just type it in and then I can click on it and go to it. And in the spreadsheet, I’m careful and I have an extra sheet on the spreadsheet that says, “also in OneNote.” And so I can go back and find it, even if it’s not. Actually, OneNote has interlinking. You can do it, it’s just a little funky.

Jorge: I had a Trip O’Dell on the podcast talking about his dyslexia and he talked about many of the things that you’re bringing up here. One of the concepts I’m planning to write about in the book is to draw an analogy with centaur chess. Have you heard of this?

Veronica: It sounds familiar; tell me more.

Jorge: So, after – what was it called? — Deep Blue, the computer that beat Kasparov at chess, right? After that happened, the chess world… It’s not that it was upended, but you know…

Veronica: People were weirded out.

Jorge: People were weirded out. And they were thinking about like, “well, where do we go from here?” And one of the places where the chess world went is to what is called centaur chess, which is grandmasters paired with computers.

Veronica: Oh.

Jorge: And, it’s a different style of chess where they have… and I don’t know the technical details behind it, but my understanding is that you get this person who is a master of the game and give them access to these databases of openings and stuff. And the computer can make recommendations. And they’re playing as a partner, the person and the computer. And that’s an image that I really like for this stuff because I think that what we’re doing is we are kind of centaur note-takers, you know? We have the memory palace that you’re describing and we have tools like OneNote or the Google Sheets thing or what have you, that augment our cognitive abilities in ways that we would not be able to individually. You know, you described having dyslexia and having the computer kind of be a very explicit augmentation, but even for people who don’t have dyslexia, if done mindfully and with a little bit of structure, they can be really, really empowering technologies. So, I’m hugely excited about this stuff.

Closing

Jorge: Thank you for sharing with us. Where can folks follow up with you?

Veronica: Oh, yeah. So, my newsletter is called Finding Out, and its website is findingout.substack.com. It also has social media: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. That’s in order of activity and it’s @howwefindout. And then you can find me on Twitter and Instagram; my handle is verbistheword, and you can find all that on my website, veronicaerb.com.

Jorge: Fantastic. Thank you so much, Veronica. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.

Veronica: Thank you, Jorge. It was great talking with you.