Category Archives: reading

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My current book workflow

I pick up a lot of information from books. We have an amazing public library system, and I’m at the library at least once a week. Here’s my current workflow for reading and taking notes on books.

Finding books to read: I check the library’s new releases for interesting titles. I have a Ruby script that extracts the information and puts it into a text file. I delete anything that doesn’t interest me, and then I copy the IDs into another Ruby on Rails system that requests all the books for me. Sometimes I search for books by topic or get recommendations from other people.

Reading books: I’ve successfully weaned myself off the bad habit of folding over the corners of book pages (dogearing). Instead, I use book darts to point to the passages that I want to copy into my notes. I have only one tin of them, so that encourages me to harvest the notes from books before moving on to other books. If I don’t have my book darts handy, I use strips of paper, but they’re not as awesome.

I also keep paper and pen handy (index cards, or the small notebook I always have in my vest) so that I can take notes on ideas, questions, and other things that aren’t directly in the text of the book.

I mostly read non-fiction, so that’s easy to skim for interesting bits. I usually check the table of contents to get an overview of the book. I have no qualms about jumping straight to specific chapters and then wandering around a bit, or even picking just a few pages out of a book. I rarely use the index (and most books don’t have a good one anyway), although maybe I should check that more often.

Taking notes: I keep individual text files named after the title of the book (and sometimes authors as well). I usually include the ISBN so that I can easily look up a book later. The text files contain quotes, ideas, TODOs, and other notes.

If no one else is around and I feel like patiently dealing with speech recognition, I open Dragon Naturally Speaking and dictate the passages from the books. This helps me train Dragon’s speech model as well, which might be handy someday. If other people are around, though, I’ll just type in the segments from the book.

I usually type in my paper notes so that they’re more coherent (since I tend to write keywords instead of full thoughts). If I want to scan my index cards or notebook pages, I pop those into my Fujitsu Scansnap ix500 and scan them as JPG. I convert the JPGs to PNG and rename them with the date and title, and then I move them to a folder that gets automatically imported into Evernote. Evernote lets me search for text, and it also tries to find text even in scans of handwriting. It’s not perfect, but it’s decent, and I’ve learned to write more clearly because of that.

Looking things up: Since most of my notes are text, I can use grep to search through them.

Sharing what I know: I sometimes include excerpts or ideas in my blog posts. When I do, I link to the blog post from my text notes as well, so I can see what I’ve digested further and shared. If I’m reading a book that I know I’ll want to share with other people later (or if the authors have asked me nicely =) ), I sometimes visually summarize the book.

Following up on ideas: I add TODOs to my Org Mode agenda. I can also schedule reminders for things. I’m a little hesitant to add my books directory to the org-agenda-files list that Org Mode checks for TODO items (I have hundreds of book notes now!), so I’ve defined a custom agenda command that looks at just the book directory instead. Alternatively, it’s easy enough to grep the TODO keyword.

Planned improvements: I’m curious about the idea of a syntopicon, which I picked up from Adler and van Doren’s How to Read a Book. A syntopicon is a map of ideas across multiple books. With Org Mode’s support for indexing and links, I should be able to make something like it. I’m also looking forward to writing more about what I do with what I’m learning from books. This helps me challenge myself to learn actively instead of just letting a book flow through my brain.

Mmm, books!

If you’re curious, you can read about my past workflows:

Becoming a better reader

My particular weakness when it comes to reading is that I can end up skimming lots of books without deeply absorbing new insights or triggering new actions. I get practically all of my books from the library. I check their lists of new acquisitions (updated on the 15th of every month) and request all the titles that look interesting. Having gone through a huge number of books, I find myself less patient with books that don’t teach me something new, or at least say things in a more memorable way.

When do I get the most value from the books I read? How do I shift my reading to more of that?

2014-08-29 Becoming a better reader

2014-08-29 Becoming a better reader

E-books might  expand more of my reading time to the subway, displacing gaming time. If I read by topic instead of getting most things through new releases, then I’ll be reading more intentionally. What am I curious about these days? Skills, mostly, along with the occasional bit of personal finance and small business management. Those topics lend themselves easily to application and experimentation, so then I’ll learn even more from experience. I also enjoy coming across the context of familiar quotes and concepts, so that’s part of the reason why philosophy books are interesting for me.

I’ve got lots of notes that I haven’t turned into blog posts, experiments, and follow-up posts. I like how I’m starting to get a hang of the connections between books. Reviewing will help me connect those dots.

Maybe I should get back to sketchnoting some of the books I read – perhaps my favourites, as a way of sharing really good ideas…

Thinking about my reading

I read widely and voraciously. Every month, I check the list of new releases at the library and request the titles that interest me. From time to time, I’ll pull other books off the shelves. When I have a new research interest, I borrow 7-10 books about it. Most of the time, I skim tables of contents and jump to the specific chapters I’m interested in. Few books deserve a close reading and lots of notes. For example, out of the twenty-seven books I lugged home a few weeks ago, I took notes on three:

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)
Loved the historical notes on note-taking, indices, and other good things. Learned a lot from this. Very geeky, though.
Epictetus: Discourses and Selected Writings (trans. and ed. by Robert Dobbin, 2008: Penguin)
Interested in Stoic philosophy.
Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (Adam Grant, 2013: Viking)
Research validation for strategy of giving; role models to look up and learn more about? (ex: Rifkin)

I was thinking about why I read a lot of books and when it might make sense to adopt a different strategy. One of the nuggets I picked up from Too Much to Know was this viewpoint from Seneca:

Instead Seneca recommended focusing on a limited number of good books to be read thoroughly and repeatedly: “You should always read the standard authors; and when you crave change, fall back upon those whom you read before.”

Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Ann M. Blair, 2011: Yale)

Restricting myself to a small canon feels slightly claustrophobic, but I can see the point of rereading, absorbing, enacting, experimenting, digging deeper. After all, the limiting factor is rarely knowledge. More often, our growth is limited by action and reflection. For personal growth, it’s not a matter of reading more books — although sometimes the right book can unlock some more understanding through a different perspective. I still like the way that reading lots of different books leads to interesting connections between diverse ideas, though, so I don’t think I’ll quite give that up. Maybe I’ll just reread particularly good books (or at least my notes of books!) more often, as I set up, go through, and review exercises and experiments associated with them.

Breadth and depth in reading

Breadth and depth in reading

Why do I read books, anyway? What do I get out of them? If I’m clearer about what I value, then maybe I can get better at choosing promising books, and also at understanding how I feel about various books. I had been looking forward to reading this social media book for a while, but I found myself a little disappointed in it. It was thorough and probably very useful, but it felt… dry. Another book was vibrant with stories, but didn’t translate into actions I was moved to take. Why do I read? What resonates with me?

I started by writing down different reasons, and then I ranked them in terms of importance. The results surprised me.

What do I look for when I read? - What are my goals?

What do I look for when I read? – What are my goals?

It turns out that I read primarily to find different approaches that I can consider or try out. This probably explains why books that proclaim the One True Method rub me the wrong way. I prefer books that lay out several strategies and describe the situations where each strategy may be more appropriate. I can use those strategies myself, and I can also pick up ideas to share with others. I can still read single-strategy books, but I have to do more of the comparison myself, and there’s always the suspicion of confirmation bias and cherry-picked stories.

On a related note, I like the way that books present a collection of ideas. When I search for information on the Net, I often end up with a zoomed-in view and little context. It’s understandable. That’s how I write on my own website – in disconnected chunks. With a well-structured book, I can learn from the related ideas that the authors include. That said, I prefer it if the authors actually worked on figuring out logical connections instead of throwing everything together in a grab-bag of miscellany.

Books are also handy for chunking ideas in a mental shorthand. For example, having read Taleb’s book, I can use the “black swan” as a mental shortcut for thinking about the certainty of unpredictable events. Reading books about communication makes it easier for me to see patterns and work with them. The danger is that I might oversimplify, smooshing real-life observations into these neat pigeonholes – but it’s probably better than not knowing what to even look for.

What kinds of books suit me well?

What kinds of books suit me well?

There are probably books that suit me better and others that suit me less. I can’t tell all these things from the titles and I refuse to be limited to bestseller recommendations, but I can get a sense of what a book is like from a quick read of a chapter. I’ll still read books outside this model once in a while, but it’s nice to know why some books end up dogeared and others skimmed.

As for closer, repeated reading, I think it comes down to being moved to action, identifying the triggers for change and the new actions I want to take, keeping notes on the experiment, and circling back to the book to check my observations against the author’s notes. There’s also this idea of not just being driven by my own questions (since I’m still learning how to ask good questions myself), but to very very carefully pick good teachers and sit at their feet (virtually, of course). Epictetus comes highly recommended throughout the ages, so he might be a good one to start with.

I’ve been reading all my life, and there’s still so much more to learn. =)

How to read blogs efficiently with a feed reader

Books tend to be better-organized and more in-depth, but these days, I get more current information and insights from blogs. Reading lots of blogs can take time, though. Worse, it’s easy to get distracted by the interesting links and ideas you’ll come across. Next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you haven’t even started working on your project.

Here are the tools and strategies I use to read blogs. I hope they help!

I subscribe to blogs I regularly read, and I read them using a feed reader. Some blogs are great for inspiration and serendipity. Other blogs are written by people I’d like to learn more about, and I don’t want them to disappear in my forgetfulness. Instead of subscribing by e-mail, I use a feed reader to organize the blogs I want to read in different folders, so I can prioritize which folder I want to read first.

You might not have come across feed readers yet, or you may already be using one without knowing what it’s called. Feed readers (also known as aggregators) are tools that go to all the blogs you’ve subscribed to and get a special version of the blog updates formatted so that computers can easily understand it. The tool then displays the information in a form you can easily read.

 

Many feed readers allow you to organize your subscriptions into folders. For example, I have an “AA Skill Development” folder for professional development blogs that I skim when I find myself with a moment of time. I add “AA” to the beginning of folders that I’d like to see first in the list, since the folders are alphabetically sorted. Organizing your subscriptions into folders is great because that allows you to quickly read through lots of similar topics together.

I read most blog posts on my phone, quickly paging through headlines and excerpts. I rarely read blogs when I’m at my computer. After all, I could be doing something more productive instead, and I don’t want to get distracted by the links. The Feedly app isgreat for this because it can synchronize across devices. Many feed readers even let you read while you’re offline, which is great for learning things when I’m on the subway. Lately I’ve been skimming through everything, newest posts first. It doesn’t take me a lot of time to do so, and it means that I don’t forget to read the folders down the list.

When I come across something I find interesting, I use the Save for later feature in Feedly. I can then follow up on it when I get back to my computer by checking my Saved for later folder. I usually save this for my weekly review. In fact, I have an If This Then That recipe that copies my saved items into Evernote, and I have an Emacs Lisp script that exports that list and makes it part of my weekly review. That’s probably the geekiest part of my setup, so don’t worry if that makes you gloss over. =)

You don’t have to read everything. You don’t even have to skim through everything. Feel free to use the Mark all as read feature, or to ignore the unread count.

Most feed readers can autodetect the feed for the site you want to subscribe to. For example, if you want to add this site to your Feedly, you can try putting in http://sachachua.com/blog and it should show you the recent posts. I write about a lot of different topics, so if you want, you can subscribe to just one category. For example, if you only want my learning-related posts, you can subscribe to http://sachachua.com/blog/category/learning/feed .

I like using the free Feedly reader, and there are many other options out there. I hope you find something that works for you!

How I read books and do visual book reviews

Bakari wanted to know how I did my visual book reviews. Here’s how!

Over the past year, we’ve checked out an average of 13 items a week from the Toronto Public Library each month. I select books by browsing through the library’s new releases list or searching through their collection for a particular topic I want to focus on. I sometimes reach out to publishers and authors if I hear of an interesting book (particularly books related to visual thinking), and some reach out to me because they’ve seen some of my visual book reviews. In addition, I receive one or two books a month for review.

I skim through most of the books I get, since many repeat things I’ve already read in other books. When I’m conscientious, I mark pages with book darts or strips of paper. Sometimes I just dogear them and then donate to the library to make up for my guilty conscience. I don’t write in books, especially not library books. I prefer to keep highlights on my computer, where I can search them and reuse them easily.

Reading non-linearly helps me save time by jumping to chapters that interest me the most. From time to time, I come across fascinating ways to see things. I type or dictate quotes into my computer, or scan diagrams into my Evernote notebook. Then the book goes on the growing pile of things to return during our frequent library trips. (As of this writing: 3 items ready to be returned, 6 more to read by Saturday, 44 items currently checked out.)

For books that I want to share or deeply understand, I make a visual book review: a one-page summary of the key points from a book, based on what I think of it and what I want to remember. Visual book reviews help me:

  • Pay more attention to a book
  • See the structure of a book in better detail than a table of contents does
  • Easily talk about books with other people, because I can share the visual book review with them
  • Quickly review the books I’ve read
  • Build my visual vocabulary and practise my sketchnoting skills with good material
  • Get better at summarizing ideas in a few words or an image
  • Give something back to the authors whose books I enjoy
  • Attract publishers and authors who are working on books that I might learn a lot from so that they send me a review copy

I usually draw while reading the book for the first time. I’ve tried drawing on my second read-through, but I find many books boring if read again so quickly after the first time. I read the table of contents to get a general sense of how the book is laid out. Then I read through the book, holding the book open (or paging through it on my tablet if I’m reading an e-book, which I’m coming to prefer) while writing down key points in my tablet PC and doodling little illustrations. I erase, resize, and move things around as needed so that there’s space for everything I want to remember. Then I post the notes to my blog and add them to my public Evernote notebook so that I can find them again. I release my book reviews under the Creative Commons Attribution License (with attribution baked into the image! =) ) so that people can freely share them.

Many people don’t have the time or inclination to read. I read a lot. I enjoy reading, and it helps me learn so much more than I could have figured out on my own. I’m so lucky to be in a city with an amazing public library system, and to be alive in the age of the Internet and e-books. If I can learn as much as possible and share as much as I can (perhaps in more useful or engaging ways than a book that needs an hour or two to read), then that’s another way I can give back to the world. And I learn a ton along the way!

Related:

Discovering the MaRS #startupbookclubTO: The $100 Startup

After a great day at work, I bundled up against the cold and squeezed into the rush-hour crowd on my way to to the MaRS Startup Book Club at 101 College Street. I wondered if it would be like The Jane Austen Book Club or more like the 400+-person entrepreneurship events I’d gone to at MaRS. I didn’t know what to expect. I think it was my first book club meeting ever.

I’d gone through my emergency stash of business cards at an unexpected clip, and I still hadn’t gotten around to experimenting with Moo-based sketchnote cards. On a whim, I footed it to a nearby shop and got a hundred copies made of my sketchnote of The $100 Startup. I figured that since we were going to discuss the book, my sketchnote would be a handy thing to give to people instead of a business card. Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to include contact information on the sketch.

Still-warm copies stashed safely in my bag, I dashed to MaRS a few minutes late. I found the room at the back of MaRS and walked in slightly breathless – to find my sketchnotes preceding me, printed out on individual large sheets (11”x17”?) for each attendee. Did that ever send me over the moon!

20120509-sketchnotes-100-dollar-startup

It was fantastic! We started with a round of introductions coupled with favourite stories from the book. For me, looking at the fish drawing reminded me right away of that point that sometimes you shouldn’t teach a person to fish, you should just keep it simple and give them the darn fish. We talked about joint ventures and strategic alliances. We talked about delegating. We talked about testing ideas and dealing with failures. We talked about building confidence.

And boy, were there ever so many book recommendations… I recognized some of the books like Predictably Irrational, and many were completely new to me. Fellow bookworms! Other people who fill index cards and type notes with thoughts and quotes and ideas from books! I think I’m going to have so much fun swapping notes with people.

It was generally agreed that The $100 Startup was an easy read, the kind of thing you’d give to people who are interested in starting their own business, but perhaps less of a recommendation for people who are already neck-deep in the Startup Owner’s Manual or things like that. I’m a relative newbie (I’m only just getting to apply those things I’ve been reading about for years!), so I got a lot out of this book, and I’ve been experimenting with the ideas in it.

You know that feeling you get when you stumble across somewhere you actually, surprisingly fit in? Your tribe? I think this might be another great tribe to belong to. =) I have sooooo much to learn about business, and I think this is a great place to start.

Thanks for organizing this, Keri Damen and Marielle Voksepp! Can’t wait to get to know the others and to read the next book.

Interested in joining the book club? There doesn’t seem to be a separate LinkedIn group for it yet, but you can probably reach out to Marielle over Twitter and ask to be added to the mailing list.