Taking Note: How Note-taking Improves Reading—An Interview with Shane Parrish

This post is part of an ongoing series, “Taking Note,” which outlines the history and styles of note taking. Throughout the coming weeks, we’ll explore how taking notes can improve your creativity and all the work you set out to accomplish.

Whether you read for information or entertainment, reading well depends on your engagement with the material. Just ask Shane Parrish, founder of the Farnam Street website and newsletter. Farnam Street is geared towards helping people read better, and over the past few years, it has attracted an audience of voracious bibliophiles, CEOs, and knowledge workers, all hoping to get more out of what they read.

In this interview, Shane talked with us about the importance of separating signal from noise—finding the things that truly matter in a sea of distraction. He also sings the praises of active note-taking, asking questions, drawing parallels, and connecting the dots to form new ideas based on what you read. The art of taking notes is nothing new, but the approach that Shane recommends may help you make those leaps in thought in a whole new way.

How do you find the content you read?

I like to make friends with the “eminent dead,” people like Benjamin Franklin, Seneca, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, and David Foster Wallace. We’ll still be talking about them in 50 years, 100 years, and 500 years, because they wrote about the fundamentals of human nature. If I’m going to spend time learning something, I want it to be as timeless as possible.

Of course, you also need to know what to look for. But good content is not that hard to find. I follow what I’m interested in learning—for me, that ranges from philosophy to biology, chemistry to psychology, economics to art. If I read something and I like it, I find the reference section in the back of the book is an incredibly helpful place to find something else to read on the same subject.

I’m also incredibly fortunate. I believe that Farnam Street readers are the smartest readers on the Internet—when they send me book recommendations, I pay attention. I probably have more books than I’ll ever get to, and I’m OK with that. Having these books reminds me of my ignorance, and also excites my intellectual curiosity. There’s always something new to pursue. I just keep pushing and digging deeper into the things I’m interested in, and that seem timeless and useful.

Are you consuming a broad range of content? For example, do you read books, articles, newspapers, and magazines?

I’m promiscuous—I go where the knowledge is. What matters to me is that the benefit matches the level of effort required for what I’m reading.

If I’m reading for information, it’s different from reading for learning. If I’m reading for entertainment, it’s going to be different still. And of course, the quest for information and entertainment sometimes overlap. You can learn while you read for entertainment or for information, and you can be entertained by your learning. I certainly am.

Learning something deeply and fundamentally affects how you understand the world, and most of your reading can’t and won’t deliver that.

The problem I see too frequently is, especially as people age, they begin to read exclusively for information and entertainment, and stop trying to learn. They stop dropping important new roots, and don’t even tend to the older ones anymore.

To give you an example, I gave up reading most newspapers a few years back when I realized the noise to signal ratio was too high. The time I was spending reading them had too little benefit. It was time I could have spent reading books and learning fundamental things. Now, I’ll occasionally grab the weekend edition of a newspaper, but that’s more of a habit than a must-read now.

One thing I’ve recently started to do is to print and queue articles rather than read them online. I’ll take a few hours every week, and just go through the folder. It’s really helped me focus, and I’ve cut down on the number of browser tabs I have open. More importantly, I feel like I’m reading better. I share my top five articles in my weekly digest, called Brain Food.

For deep thinking, I still prefer physical books. Articles are great, and I read those mostly for gaining information. They are like seeing the tip of the iceberg, but books show you what’s below the water. In the past few years, I’ve been purchasing both a physical and digital copy of the same book. Publishers must love me.

Do you read your books the same way digitally and by hand?

No. I do enjoy my Kindle, but my comprehension level isn’t the same as with a physical book. I can’t flip back and forth as easily. I get distracted by the technology. And the iPad app affects my sleep. I suppose that’s one tradeoff for having a 500-book library in my pocket. If all were equal, I’d choose the physical book. The value of the book changes depending on, among other things, what, how, and when I’m reading, and on what I plan to do with the material after I’m finished. I’m more likely to read on my Kindle for information and/or entertainment, and read the deep and juicy stuff on paper.

How do you discover new authors to read?

I pick up books by multiple authors to try and see all sides of an argument. How do I find which authors to read? A few ways:

  1. I’ll search for the top-ranked books, and then read reviews of those books.
  2. I’ll reach out to experts in an industry.
  3. I’ll consult with a few friends who work in the publishing industry.

These filters help me separate signal from noise. While there’s more noise than ever in modern life, we also have many ways to cut through it if we choose.

Be ruthless about focusing your attention on the good stuff. Read the best biography you can find. Read the most timeless treatment on a topic. Read the best physics textbook ever written. I think anyone with that mindset can figure out ways to execute it. Ask around, read around. If you start in on something and you find that it’s not “the thing,” then put it down and look at something else.

How do you take notes when you are reading?

I keep all my notes in Evernote—whether through copy and pasting, image capture, or typing. Evernote helps me capture ideas and make connections while I’m reading.

I start reading a book with the index, table of contents, and the preface—this normally gives me a good sense of the book, its vocabulary, and where the author wants to take me.

In the text, I focus on what’s important; what I think is critical to the arguments in the piece I’m reading. I underline anything that strikes me as interesting. I circle words I need to look up for a better understanding. I mark comments and questions in the margins to try and tease out assumptions. Essentially, I’m trying to engage in a conversation with the author.

After I’ve read the book and have absorbed what the author is trying to tell me, I’ll look at the notes again and see what’s changed since I started reading the book. If something still strikes my interest, I take notes in the first few pages of the book on that topic.

Once I’ve captured my notes in Evernote I create a mental summary of the book’s main arguments and gaps that I think exist. When I can, I’ll cross-link points with other books.

Tell us more about the summarizing process you mentioned. Why is it important?

It is occasionally useful to write an outline on a blank sheet of paper, using examples, my own thoughts, and one or more of the main arguments of the book. I do this if I need to find out whether I actually understand what I’ve read or just know the name of it.

This concept comes from the physicist Richard Feynman. He was able to articulate a deeper level of understanding that goes beyond categories or descriptions. For example, you can know the name of a bird, but beyond that, purely knowing the name does nothing to understanding how the bird flies:

“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people; what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.”

You can know the name of the bird in any language, but learning about the bird—how it flies and what distinguishes itself from others, shows a deeper understanding, and as Feynman says, demonstrates the ability to differentiate “between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

So how do we do that, moving beyond raw information and into knowledge?

We outline all this in an online course we put together on the art of reading called How to Read a Book.

I’ll first preface by stating that there is a difference between knowing something and really understanding it.

When you first pick up a book, you have to ask yourself if you’re reading it for information or to develop a deeper level understanding. A good heuristic is that anything we can easily digest is reading for information. Reading for understanding, however, is how we get smarter.

I mentioned going through the front/back covers, the introduction, the table of contents, and skimming the chapters. That’s basically creating a mental map of the book.

At this stage, you want to define, at least loosely, what type of book you’re reading. It’s not always as simple as it sounds. Is the Count of Monte Cristo an adventure, a romance, or a history? Is Moby Dick an adventure tale, a book on whaling, a memoir, or an allegory? And why does knowing matter?

If the book is practical, it will tell us why and how something should be done; if it is theoretical, it will try to tell us what is true. A simple romance tale is mostly meant to entertain. It’s useful to categorize a bit in order to calibrate how closely you should be paying attention to the text. You can read The Bible for inspiration, for academic reasons, for historical purposes, or simply for entertainment.Get it clear with yourself why you’re reading a particular book.

But once you’ve determined if a book is worthy of your time, it’s not just a matter of diving in. This is the analytical reading stage. And your note taking system will be key. The simple truth about note-taking is, however you do it, the purpose is to keep your thinking brain turned on and have a “dialogue” with the author.

Taking notes is not really the point. The point is to avoid reading passively.

The next step to optimizing your knowledge is to summarize the whole book in a single sentence (or at most a short paragraph).

Finally, seek to understand the author’s problems. Where does the argument lie? Where does the uncertainty lie? Where are the borders of the author’s competence and knowledge—what does he or she know and what is speculation? The author won’t tell you, it’s your job to figure that out.

Where you really get into developing a deep understanding of a topic is by doing comparative reading—digesting many books on the same subject and comparing and contrasting the ideas. This kind of comparison is called syntopical reading.

There is a big difference between reading and reading well. And that difference grows in a non-linear manner over time. People who read well acquire new knowledge and ideas at a much faster rate.

How do you use Evernote to take note of your reading? Share your tips for the community in the comments below.

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