Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He’s the co-author with Stephen Anderson of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding. Karl is one of the most avid readers I know, and in this conversation, we compare our reading practices. We discussed this subject in preparation for a personal knowledge management workshop we will teach later this year.
- Karl Fast - LinkedIn
- The Informed Life episode 69 - Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 1
- The Informed Life episode 70 — Karl Fast on Interactionism, part 2
- Be Useful — Arnold Schwarzenegger on 7 Tools for Life, Thinking Big, Building Resilience, Processing Grief, and More (#696) - The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss
- War and Peace - Wikipedia
- God, Human, Animal, Machine: Technology, Metaphor, and the Search for Meaning by Meghan O’Gieblyn
- Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity by Edward Tenner
- To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of DeathTo Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of DeathTo Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell
- The Bodybuilders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human by Adam Piore
- No-dig gardening - Wikipedia
- Mise en place - Wikipedia
- Everything in Its Place: The Power of Mise-En-Place to Organize Your Life, Work, and Mind by Dan Charnas
- Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics
- Fight Club (1999) - IMDb
- Build a Personal Knowledge Garden (Karl and Jorge’s workshop) — use discount code TILPKG before October 30, 2023 for 20% off the regular price
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This episode's transcript was produced by an AI. If you notice any errors, please get in touch.
Jorge: Karl, welcome back to the show.
Karl: Thanks for having me.
Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you. You and I are friends, so this does not feel like an unusual circumstance for me to be talking with you. In fact, we talk weekly usually, and I’ve always been impressed in our conversations because I always leave those with lists of books that I need to go and check out. I always get the sense that you are a very avid reader.
So, I was hoping that we would spend some time talking about how you read, and in particular also because you and I are doing a workshop at the end of November on how to make sense of information, personal information. So this would be a good opportunity for us to talk about our processes and share how we learn.
But, for folks who might not have heard our previous conversations, can you give us a very brief intro about yourself?
Karl: Absolutely. I have been working in the information space for close to 30 years since I started building websites in 1994. And while I started out in engineering physics, I wound up going into information architecture and user experience design and did a PhD at one point in library and information science and was a professor of user experience design for many years.
But across all of that, in all those different areas, whether it’s physics, or design, or user experience, or information science, and many other areas, I have always been a lifelong reader. And I think if I was to identify myself in any particular way, lifelong reader would be one of the most important identities. If I’m not reading something, I go crazy, the way that some people, if they’re not exercising on a regular basis, like every single day, they go crazy.
Jorge: Yeah, I heard an interview yesterday with Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, he was talking about how at a certain time in his life, he would basically live at the gym. And to your point, there are people for whom these things become part of their identity. Uh, Is reading your primary modality for learning?
Karl’s reading habits
Karl: I would say… Yeah, well it kind of depends what we’re talking about learning. I have found that over the years I’ve been really surprised at how many people watch YouTube videos as entertainment or for learning, and for me that’s a very tactical thing. I need to learn a specific thing where I know it’s in a visual form that if I use YouTube it will really help me. But for the most part the way that I learn new things, to learn new ideas, learn about the world, reflect on different ideas, no matter what I’m reading, it really comes back to reading for me.
Jorge: Around how many books would you say you read every year?
Karl: Oh, that’s an easy question because I track everything and I have tracked it for several decades. So a typical year for me is somewhere between 60 to 70 books, a bad year is about 50, a very good year is over 70, and an excellent year is something over 80.
And this includes books over all kinds of different categories: fiction and non fiction. And it’s not a super complicated list, I mostly keep it in a spreadsheet, but I write down what I read, who wrote it, when I started, when I ended it, and then I have a little rating for it. I’ve got a five point scale I use to rate everything just so I get a sense of this was really good or this was worth it. And then what I also do is I loosely categorize it into one of four major categories and I write a small note about what I thought about the book.
Jorge: That seems very disciplined and structured, as one might expect from someone with a background in library science.
Karl: it’s interesting because it’s easy to over-design something like that. So examples for the way that I categorize stuff is, I only have four categories, and for the longest time I only had three. It’s either a book, one category is enjoy. I’m just reading it purely for pleasure.A second category is what I call ideas; I’m just reading it for ideas to learn about something. The third category is what I just call better or improve; I am learning it to develop a specific skill so I can get better at something: maybe it’s cooking; maybe it’s gardening; maybe it’s how to read books and take notes better. And then, the last category which is added in the number of years is family, although more broadly it might be social: it’s books that I am reading because other people who are close to me are reading them. Or like when my son was young, I read them aloud; now it’s a case where he’s reading a book, so I would like to read it as well, so we both can talk about that book.
Jorge: That’s interesting, it’s like the first three categories you mentioned are about self-improvement, but this last one is somehow about participating in a social activity.
Karl: The other books are also, to some extent, about not self-improvement, they also have a social development. Because all the people in my life know that I read a lot, so they will often ask me for book suggestions. And I am constantly recommending books to people about everything. Which is something you know well.
Jorge’s reading habits
Jorge: Yeah, absolutely. And I was going to say, part of what I was hoping we would do in this conversation is compare notes on our reading habits. And with that in mind, I’m going to just compare and contrast with my own…
Volume: I read much less than you do, I would say, based on what you’re describing here. You said that an excellent year for you, you read over 80 books. For me, I’m usually between 40 and 50. And like you, I keep track of what I read. I don’t have a spreadsheet; I take notes after I’ve finished reading a book. And that’s just because I have terrible memory, and if I don’t write down a synopsis of the book and capture the main ideas that I’ve gotten out of it, then two or three years from now, I will remember that I read the book, but sometimes I won’t remember the main things that I got from it, so taking down these notes helps me better capture what it is that I thought was special about that book.
Karl: Yeah, absolutely. I think the thing about reading is,when I’m reading a book in the category of enjoy, I have it in my mental list that I’m probably not really going to take any notes or many notes about it. Maybe there’s a particular passage, a particular phrase, some sort of excerpts that I might capture.
But usually that’s not going to be the case. When it comes to the books that are in ideas or the “better” category, then I’m almost always going to be taking notes and sometimes way too many, and that’s an area where I want to improve. so I’m being more selective about what I do.
Jorge: You know, something that’s happened to me over the last few years of my reading practice is that I used to have these distinctions — and it wasn’t the same exact categories you’re calling out, but I did used to distinguish between books that I was reading for pleasure and books that I was reading because I wanted to learn something or because they had important ideas that I needed to know about.
And one of the things that’s been happening to me over the last few years is that those categories have been converging, in that I’ve been reading more books for pleasure and finding ideas in them that connect somehow to the sort of ideas that inform my thinking. And one example of this is, last year and earlier this year I was reading, War and Peace, which is a very long book. And, you know, it’s a novel; it’s fiction. So it wasn’t a book that I went into thinking,I’m going to be getting important ideas out of this. I did think, this is a famous, important book, and I feel like I should read it at some point in my life. And I started enjoying it quite a bit, almost in the way that, that folks enjoy watching a very long TV series, you know, binge watching something. But it’s a book about ideas, right? And some of those ideas,stuck with me.
And this is where this note-taking practice comes in useful: when I was done with that book, I sat down with my note-taking system and just I tried to pin down for myself what it was that had stood out to me about this book. And that feeds into my kind of idea, ecosystem, right? Which is captured in my note-taking system.
Comparing our approaches
Karl: So, tell me a little bit more about your note taking system, because I know that you read, but you’ve been talking on the show and you’ve been interviewing a bunch of people about how they take notes. I know we’re doing this workshop together. but we’ve only talked somewhat lightly in some cases about the details of your book about the system that you have. And I’m curious to hear more about that.
Jorge: Sure, so like you, I have been capturing notes about the books I read for over a decade. So, I can look in my computer and find which book I read 10 years ago, right? and I have notes of varying degrees of quality going back that far.
Karl: So it’s evolved.
Jorge: It has evolved, for sure. I mean, the notes themselves and also the tools that I use to capture them are different, right? I currently use Obsidian to capture my reading notes and the way it works is I make a note for each book and I usually start that note when I finish reading the book. , which means that really the notes that I capture in my system are notes for books that I have finished. And that’s an important distinction because I start a lot of books that I don’t finish.
Karl: Which is a good strategy.
Jorge: Yeah, they either don’t grab me or I disagree so strongly with the premise or whatever that I’m like, “Ah, this is not worth my time.”
Karl: One of the things that will happen to me is I’ll read in clusters So, like right now on my desk, I’ve got a series of books here on transhumanism and body technology. And so, I’ve been reading this fascinating, this absolutely fantastic book by Megan O’Gimlin called,God, Human, Animal, Machine, where she argues that the old questions about, say, what is the nature of life and who are we and can we transcend death and these types of questions, which have always been the realm of philosophy and theology, and she’s pointing out that these questions have fundamentally become not questions of science and technology so much as they have become engineering problems. Can we scan a human mind into a machine? Could we recreate life in a computer? What is the nature of consciousness? Could we recreate? Could we design consciousness? Could we be consciousness if we uploaded ourselves into a cloud? She’s like,these have always been in a different area.
Anyway, I have a whole bunch of different books that I’ve collected over the years about things like transhumanism and body technology. And so, I’ve got a series of them on my shelf here, which I’ve never gotten around to. And so, Our Own Devices by Edward Tenor. To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, The Bodybuilders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human. Things like that.
And so, what I’m planning to do here with this cluster is, The God Human Animal Machine is a really fascinating book. It’s excellent. I’ve got these other four books, at least. And so, I’m planning to start reading through them. But if there’s stuff where I’m like, oh, this is different, or this is the same, I’m just going to skip through, and some of the books on me like this may not be as useful, and I just won’t read it, but so I’ll often do that where I read around in a cluster I’ve got, and something will often say, oh yeah, you’ve got that cluster of books in your collection, why don’t you just sit there and go through all of them, but you’re not going to read all of them, every last word, every last page.
Jorge: That’s really interesting. That approach strikes me as, I was going to use the word grazing, but that feels dismissive and somewhat pejorative. Would you say that you’re scanning books for ideas and then connecting them to other ideas that you’ve read in books?
Karl: Quite often I will read in those clusters because no one author is going to tell the whole story. No one author is going to provide a perspective which gives me all the things that I want. Last year, for example, we decided to put in a garden in the backyard and that became my responsibility.
And so, I read about, I discovered this thing called no-dig gardening and I’d heard about this one particular fellow named Charles Dowding. I didn’t love all of his books, but I found a bunch of other books. So I read a whole bunch of stuff around this no-dig gardening concept, where the idea is improved soil health where you do a lot less work, but you’re really focusing on the soil, and I’ve had spectacular results.
No one book helped me through that. But what I learned from reading, and often skimming and scanning, about a dozen books, that actually did make a difference. And none of those books actually made it onto my reading log, because if I don’t read the book all the way through, or mostly all the way through, I don’t consider that I have read it, even though I have extracted ideas from it.
Jorge: Yeah, that’s really interesting. It strikes me as a fundamental difference in our approaches in that, whenever I’m reading a book, I feel like I’ve undertaken this commitment, this kind of project to read that book. And if it’s a good book, I want to feel like I’ve read the book and gotten the author’s argument.
Karl: So, those are my favorite books, where when I pick it up, I’m like, “I really want to read all the way through.” God, Human, Animal, Machine, I want to read that book all the way through, I’ve bought a copy, I’m probably going to read it again.
Jorge: But for me it’s almost pathological because I feel like this internal nagging feeling if I’m not making progress with the book. And I get the sense from hearing you talk about your approach, at least for some kinds of books, that what you’re really after is not finishing the book per se, but getting a grip on the ideas and getting different perspectives and creating some kind of mental model.
Karl: Only for certain topics and certain kinds of books where I have a particular intention about that. It’s more likely to be the case when it comes to books that are in the “improve” section and sometimes ones that are in the “ideas” section. And for a long time I had an idea that if I started a book, I should really finish it.
And,my wife is very good at like, “Yeah, this book sucks. Done.”And she will just stop reading books all the time. I have had a much, much harder time doing that. It’s taken me many years to get to the point where I feel like, “Oh, yeah.” And the strategy that I’ve generally found is to do this clustering approach, where I’ve got a book that really speaks to me, that seems very pivotal, and then I’ve got other books around that where I can let go and that has allowed me to be like, “Oh, I’ve seen it before. I know what this is.” So then I don’t feel as much of a need to read through, or I will be like, yeah, I can skim through this chapter a bit. I can skip this section here.
Jorge: Do you take notes about the ideas as these books cross-pollinate, or how are you keeping track of all that?
Karl: So the primary way that I take notes, the main thing for me is, I have these little Post It® sticky… They’re called flags or whatever, I’m not sure what the term is when you search for them on Amazon or whatever. They’re not like a full-fledged sticky note like the 3x3. It’s just a little sticky flag. And it’s in different colors, and I have, I will mark up a passage as I’m going through. It’s kind of like doing a Kindle highlight, except I can’t flag the whole section. And I tend to read paper books more than digital ones. Although I do read digital ones. And the most reason I read paper is I find it, one, more pleasurable, but two, when you’re reading a paper book, there’s a lot of things you can’t do. You can’t email. You can’t browse the web. You can’t get a message. Like, all these things go away.
Jorge: So it’s a focus thing.
Karl: It is typically a focus thing combined with like, just the physical pleasure of the material
Jorge: The material as in the paper?
Karl: In the paper. I find I often tend to enjoy that. But I will have these books and they will sometimes have, you know, sometimes it’s only a couple and but I will be reading a book and my wife will say how is that one and I’ll just hold it up and say like so that she can see all the flags on it. And that’s an indicator of like, “Yep, that’s a good one!” And then what will happen is after I go through, I will typically go with the goal of getting rid of, not actually making a note of 30 to 40 percent of those flags, because a lot of them that seemed interesting in the moment, where really what was interesting about it was that that was a particularly compelling passage, but not necessarily a useful insight. Or that particular one actually is one of three or four different things that get spread over eight or ten pages, or it gets repeated in other places in the book. And so, those all get collapsed down into one other thing. And so I’ll go through and I’ll process all of that.
A lot of times, historically, it had been more about copying it out, scanning it in. And I still do a lot of that because I love the way that other people write and explain ideas, and so I find that very helpful. But also I do more and more of summarizing and synthesizing those types of things, boiling them down.
Emotional reactions to reading
Karl: I also have a large backlog of books where I have read the book, I’ve got a bunch of these sticky flags, I’ve just never gotten around to processing the book. I think that’s something important for people to, to recognize. I feel like there’s a lot of guilt about reading with many people. I should be reading more. I should be reading better books or more sophisticated books.
And when it comes to notes, I think A lot of us, I know I have, it took me a while to get over feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got this big backlog, not just of books I want to read,” but notes of books that I have read, but notes I have not taken on that book. And I’ve just sort of gotten to the point where I’m like, “You know, I’m just, that, that might happen at some point, but maybe not. Maybe not ever.” It’ll just sit there for a while.
Jorge: Yeah, I can totally relate to this guilty feeling about wanting to read more. I feel like this year in particular, I’m behind on my reading
Karl: Mm hmm.
Jorge: I don’t think that’s a healthy approach. Like we don’t do, I don’t think that we do that with other media, right? Like, do people feel guilt about not binge-streaming enough on Netflix or something?
Karl: Oh, I suspect these days, in the golden age of streaming, I think that is very much the case of all the stuff that they’re not watching because there’s so many great things out there and you feel like you’re missing out on something that’s really great or really important. And, I do have some of those feelings about books, but over the years I’ve gotten… you know, I said that at the very beginning that if I’m not reading, I feel like I go crazy.
And part of the reason that I keep track of the books that I have read is to get a sense of what I have read, what kinds of things, how the year has gone, and just the very act of reading can be something that’s useful for my mental health. I love to live in the world of ideas. I love ideas, sometimes so much that it is to my detriment. But it is something that I can’t imagine a life where I was not reading. It’s just an incredibly important thing for me in terms of, it’s not just interesting, but it is, it’s almost a kind of mental health thing in many cases. If I’m not reading enough, I can feel it. I will feel like out of sorts.
Jorge: I think this might be very particular to you. I mean, I can relate to what you’re saying, because I too feel incredibly nourished by reading. But…
Karl: That’s a good word.
Jorge: I think that it’s one of these things where everybody has different modalities that they gravitate toward and it just sounds to me like you have clearly found yours.
Karl: You know, it’s not just modalities. I think it’s also priorities. And the thing about priorities isyou can’t prioritize everything. And I have always, for me, because I know that it’s not just good, but good for me — I am better and happier when I am reading — that I prioritize reading, and I always have. Even when I was in university, I studied engineering physics, which is a very intensive program. And I was taking seven classes a semester for most of that time. And these are classes in things like quantum mechanics and electricity, theoretical electricity, and magnetism, and designing microchips.
Even then I was reading not nearly as much as I do now, but I still, in addition to my academic reading, I always read, I always tried to read at least one novel a month. And there are periods in your life where you’re just too busy to do those types of things. But I’ve always had, a life of books where I have books stacked all over the house.
We’ve got all kinds of shelves. Books come in, books go out. I have to cull them every once in a while because we just don’t have enough physical space. That’s a hard thing to do, to get rid of books. But when I say that I read 60 books a year and you say that you only read 40 to 50, there is no way that you or anyone should feel like that they admire me for that or feel guilty about not reading at that level.
Reading habits and places
Jorge: Right. Well, I was going to ask, because it’s something that might be on folks minds hearing us talk about oh, 40 to 60 books a year. That’s a lot, right? Like, a lot of people read maybe four or five books a year. And one of the questions that might be in people’s minds is, “Well, how do you find the time to do this?” Because reading a book is a time commitment. So how do you do it?
Karl: One recommendation that people often make is to schedule time. Just like you might schedule time to go exercise. I have never really done that, although I have done it for exercise, because I find exercise or going for a run to be a little harder to fit into the day, and to make it a high enough priority that it actually does happen consistently. So for me, it’s really not hard.
In my particular case, I have often read early in the morning, or I’ve often found quiet time in the evening before I go to bed. My wife will always take a book with her to work, and when she takes her lunch break, she always sits down and reads the book. That is just what she does. She has lunch meetings now and then at work, but,when she goes for lunch for herself, she never goes to just eat, she goes to eat and read. And so she finds those kinds of, little groups,pockets in the day.
In my particular case, I wind up getting much, I get up several hours earlier ahead of everyone else in the house. I do some various things in the kitchen to get things going for other people in the house, feed the dog, those types of things. And then I make myself a cup of tea and I sit down and read, typically for about an hour, depending on when everybody else gets up.It’s more of a habitual thing; I don’t have it on my calendar.
Jorge: And where do you do this? Do you sit down at a nice, comfy chair? Do you do it at a desk?
Karl: So I am a big believer in the idea of the importance of physical space. And I think for many people the idea of readinghas a strong aesthetic quality to that physical space, where it has to be like a nice looking… has to be an Instagrammable-looking space, shall we say. There’s a certain aesthetic idea of what it should look like. And I understand that to a certain extent.
I’m in the middle of actually — and you can see this in the room where I’m on the camera here recording this — I’m in the process of rearranging and redesigning my little extra room that I have where I have my studio here. And I am rethinking it around the where I want to put shelves and where I want to put other physical things to support reading because I don’t think of reading as just sitting down in a comfortable chair, opening the book and scanning my eyes across the page. There’s more to it than that.
If I’m going to take notes, I need a place where, that means at the very least, I need to have my little sticky flags ready at hand. A lot of times, what I’m more likely to do now is to write down a few notes as I’m doing things. So I might flag a bunch of stuff. Oh, like maybe we’ll go back to that one. Oh, maybe you should reconsider that. But other times, I want to jot down the thoughts right there. So I’ll have a piece of, I’ll have a pad. that means that I don’t want to put the book down and find a place for it; what I would rather do is have a place where I can just lean over, I’ve got the pad. I’ve got a pen. I can write stuff down. Or maybe I want to do it with a Kindle.
I’m thinking about what are the physical things around that chair. Not just the chair and the lighting and a stand for the book, but the things that I want to have nearby as part of that space where I’m creating a space around not merely reading, but the reading and the thinking that goes along with it.
Jorge: Yeah, it sounds like you have some kind of mise en place for reading…
Karl: There is very much a mise en place! And as you mention that, I’m actually reading a book on mise en place. Specifically around this idea of mise en place. It’s called Everything In Its Place. I think that’s been republished as a book called Work Clean. and you can see like that is only the first like 100 pages of the book; I’ve just got stickies like crazy on this thing. It’s a fascinating little book.
The basic idea is, he goes through and he studies… he is a journalist; so it’s not an academic study. I have looked in the past for any academic papers about studying chefs and mise en place, and I have only found a handful. They haven’t been nearly as… I’ve been very surprised that nobody has really done this in a very deep way. And perhaps I’ve justmissed those studies because my background in academically has been stuff around extended mind and distributed cognition and how we create digital spaces for thinking.
But the idea of mise en place is a physical space to augment and enhance your ability to think and do work. Each chapter is going through and talking to chefs and discussing studies about and describing how people go about cooking and how they arrange their space to improve cooking and how they do it both in terms of the physical process, but supporting the mental — the brain based operations — of cooking and how all these two things are not separate, but all mixed up together and then he follows each of those sections, each of those chapters, with another one which says this is what that kind of means; we can draw out the principles of how the chefs work creating the mise en place, this structured physical space to support a cognitively demanding activity, and we can take those principles and we can apply them to knowledge work. That’s a pretty fascinating idea. And so I’ve really enjoyed the book for that. It’s coming at a familiar problem from another direction.
Jorge: That does sound fascinating, and this is a great example of the pitfalls I fall into when talking with you, because now I want to go off and read that book.
Karl: Oh, I got a bunch of books. This is always what happens. I’m always, like I said at the beginning, I am, I love to recommend books. I did a master’s in library information science and went on to do a Ph.D. And I never thought that I would ever do work in a library. That was never the intention. My intention was to go in to extract the stuff around knowledge organization, things in information architecture, things that were relevant to the broader questions about user experience design and information architecture. And that’s why I eventually wound up going and becoming a professor in that area.
But there is one area… I just knew I would be a bad fit in that kind of institution, as much as I love libraries — and many of the books that I get and read are do come from the library. I take out maybe 80 to 100 books a year from the library half of them go back half of them get read. But there is one way in which I have always thought myself and people have often commented that I am a pretty good librarian and that is I am just like a constant walking readers advisory service if I recommend books to people all the time
Jorge: I want to follow up on the mise en place thing, but I’m really curious, you mentioned that you check out a lot of books in the library and the couple of books that you’ve held up to the camera while we’ve been talking are just filled with these sticky note flags.
Karl: Festooned might be the better word.
Jorge: Festooned is a lovely word, yes. How do you do that with books you check out from the library? Do you still paste sticky notes into those?
Karl: This is a library book this one on the mise en place.
Jorge: And it’s covered. People can’t see it, but it is festooned, like you said.
Karl: Oh, yeah. Now, it’s a little harder when it comes to a library book where I know it’s a popular book, where someone’s gonna want it back. But typically here in our library, we get it for three weeks and then you can renew it up to three times, so you could actually have it for almost three months. And it just means that I might have to. make sure that I process that book for making my notes faster. And there certainly have been times where I’m like,I’m just going to pull out some of the sticky notes, or maybe what I’ll do is I’ll go and I’ll take pictures or do a live text thing, where I’ll quickly scan what I think are like the top five or the top ten, and then I’ll send the book back.It’s a forcing function, and not always an unhelpful one.
Jorge: Well, it’s almost like a visible to do list because you can look at your shelves and see which books are still festooned and those are the ones you haven’t processed somehow, right?
Karl: Mm hmm.
Jorge: But to hear you talk about it highlights an important difference between how you and I read. I read mostly ebooks, and mostly on the iPad, so not physical… like, I do have physical books. I have a lot of physical books, but I don’t do most of my reading in physical books. And I must say, the physical books that I do have, the ones that I’ve read, are also festooned with sticky notes like yours.
But these days the vast majority of my reading happens on an iPad and I do not do the mise en place thing. I’m one of these people who can read anywhere and I have the iPad with me most of the time, and I can pull it out and start reading — mostly on the Kindle app. And that’s also where I annotate the books. And one of the reasons why I love reading ebooks over physical books is that I can highlight and annotate the book and those annotations are not going to be tied to that particular copy of the book; they are digital and I can open them up on my phone, on my Mac, and more importantly, they sync via Readwise into my Obsidian note repository.
Karl: Yeah, the thing for me about ebooks is… Don’t get me wrong, I do buy a lot of ebooks as well, and I use a couple of tools so that I tend to almost always buy them on a discount. And I read them on an actual Kindle device, and I read stuff on the iPad. And I do like that, and my Kindle goes with me a lot of different places. I’m someone who pretty much always has a book with them.
The thing that I sometimes dislike about the Kindle is that it lowers the friction, the effort to make a note, to annotate something, to say, “Oh, this is interesting.” And furthermore, when I can get all of those as complete things, now I wind up with a whole pile of stuff that’s exactly what I flagged, and that goes into the system probably just fine. The downside is it never forces me to go back; I have to now get myself to go back and review them to extract the actual insights and to do the work of summarizing. I’m like, Oh, I’ve got it. I will never have to actually do that extra work.
And I often find with many of the best books, that’s where the real value lies, is in going back and forcing myself to go through it and take the time to do that. It is definitely a bigger lift, for sure. And not all books are worth the lift to do that and there have been times where I have read the book in paper physical form and then i’ve got an e-copy and i’ve simply done the expedient thing and pulled up the book and pulled out the flag and then found that passage in the Kindle book and highlighted it and I just get the extracts and away we go.
But I have found that, for myself, quite often — increasingly more and more — I am moving to, how do I identify books which have higher quality and recognize that if the book takes me six hours to read, I probably want to have another two hours afterwards — or at least an hour — to go through and summarize and extract out and do that process of making notes as opposed to just copying things out.
Jorge: Yeah, absolutely. And the same is true for me, by the way: I mentioned that I write a note for each book after I’m done reading the book.
Karl: Mm hmm.
Jorge: And I can totally see the pitfall you’re describing, this idea that you might feel like you’re off the hook because you’ve highlighted the thing and written notes into the ebook as you go. But, to your point, I find that those kinds of notes, those marginalia that you take while reading, at least for me, they tend to be very contextually dependent. Like, they make sense to me at the moment, why I’m writing this down, but if I don’t circle back at the end and synthesize the whole set of ideas that is contained in the book, I might remember that I read about this thing in that particular book, but I won’t remember the big ideas. I do have to sit with the book after I’m done and review all of my highlights, review the notes that I took while reading the book, and try to make sense of them as a whole and also try to connect them with other things that I might be interested in or that I might have read.
Karl: Yes, and my system for this is definitely not as good as I would like, and I’m not as consistent as I would like. I would like to develop it in a lot of different ways. But one of the key principles, or not principles so much as a question that I continue to ask myself when I do this, is what is the good balance for this book? What is the balance that I need to strike between the efficiency of making the notes, versus the epistemic benefit I’m going to take. Like, when is it better to just be expedient, like, “Okay, I have that little thing, et cetera, and it gets processed quickly and easily” versus “What are the other benefits of taking more time?” Usually those are epistemic benefits. So you need to figure out when is this really about a sort of a practical or pragmatic kind of action that I need to be taking so that the real gain is to make it really efficient, and when is it better to have a forcing function, to have speed bumps, to force yourself to slow down?
Jorge: Yeah. And this goes back to this bad habit that I have of taking on books as projects that you somehow check off once you’ve finished reading. It’s like, “No, you have not checked it off.” There’s several points to reading: you’ve talked about pleasure, you’ve talked about the social aspect of this, but one of the important points of reading at least non fiction and books that are meant to teach you how to do something, for example, is to actually change your… I don’t know, your way of being in the world, the way that you do certain things, right? Which I think is what you’re talking about when you say epistemic benefit.
Karl: Yeah. How do I create knowledge from this book, as opposed to just have had information come through my brain. A couple of years ago, I got a book out of the library, called, Slow Reading, or In Defense… I can’t remember the title off the top of my head here. But I was really excited about this, I was really keen to look at it, and for me it was wrong book.
Because I like this idea of slow reading, and how reading slowly and more deeply and more carefully is often a way to get more value from that book, because that’s often why you are reading it. But the book, despite saying that it was going to talk about non fiction reading, didn’t really talk about it that much. This was mostly, how do you read the major classics, especially of Western literature, right? The major works. How do you read Moby Dick so you really understand it? How do you read Middlemarch so you really understand it? And the process of going through and breaking it down and asking questions. And I thought, this is a great book, but that’s not how I read most fiction. Some. But mostly not.
I want to develop a process and I’m working on that around like how do I read non fiction. And this is a case where I don’t think that there is ever an answer. But I would give the analogy to come back to it of exercise. There is no one right exercise routine for everybody. There is no one exercise that everybody should always be doing, etc. There are many different things, and you’re always looking to improve your overall fitness and health with exercise and make it a pleasurable experience, as opposed to something that just feels constantly like work.
And that’s where I often look at my reading system, whether it’s the physical space I’m in, how I take notes, the note-taking system that I have, the ways that I use those notes afterwards, all of these things are part of that and I think of it as a continual lifelong process, not just a continual lifelong process of “I’m reading and taking in more information.”
Karl and Jorge’s workshop
Jorge: That sounds like a great summary of the stance, and I think that I can totally relate to what you’re saying there. I feel that way about my own reading life as well, but this does feel like a good place to summarize and wind down the conversation. That said, you and I are going to be talking more about this because we are leading a workshop on how to better manage your personal knowledge. And that’s happening in November of 2023. Do you want to say anything about that, Karl?
Karl: I would just add that the workshop is not specifically or even about books, although books are part of it. People get information and read important and useful things from all over the place. Right now, I feel like one of the big challenges of the modern world is — how do you live — more generally, how do we live well with abundance? This is a question in consumerist society, and it’s a question that comes up in many different things. That’s what I always thought the theme of Fight Club was is the main character crazy, or is it like the consumerist society in which we live making him crazy?
And the workshop really has a lot to do with the abundance of information. How do you live well and think well in a world that is just so filled with information where you — and more so all the time — and more being pushed at you. It’s not just that we used to… you know, before, we used to have information all the time and you knew it was there in the library, or you would have the newspapers on the street. But with digital, it is just tucked into everywhere of our lives. Everywhere. And you can cram it into everything. You can have it when you’re going for a run in your headphones; you can have it when you’re driving in the car; you can have it like you can just be listening nonstop to books, audio books these days, and podcasts. So you can never be… It almost takes a force of will to not be doing it.
And that creates this feeling of being overwhelmed and like, “Oh my God, like I am behind!”, right? There’s always so much that you could be reading, that you could be watching, that you could be listening to. And this workshop I think has a lot to do with what are some of the tools and techniques for how you can get a lot more in that control while at the same time getting more value out of it.
Jorge: That’s right. And one way to think about it might be that part of the reason we feel so overwhelmed and so overloaded is that many of us have little agency over the information that’s coming at us. And one of the things that I’m getting out of this conversation that we’ve had today, and I think that we are also setting up the workshop to do, is to help people be much more intentional with their relationship to information, whether it’s coming through books, or through websites, or at work, or whatever, right? I think that if you’re more intentional, you have greater agency. And I think that you can make better use of… to use your phrase, you can get more epistemic benefit from the stuff that matters to you. Alright folks, if you want to find out more about this, we have a web page where you can read about the workshop and sign up. And you can go there byuh, visiting buildapkg.com. So that’s Build a Personal Knowledge Garden; buildapkg.com. Thank you, Karl. I’m very excited about the workshop and I’m very excited to keep collaborating with you.So, thank you for being here with us today, Karl, and telling us about your your reading life.
Karl: Thanks for inviting me.