Reading Notes: March 2021

Each month’s reading leaves me with scattered notes that don’t quite, by themselves, make up a blog post. I hope to gather these and give them some sort of shape as a thinking out loud exercise.

In March I read 8 books, from young adult fiction to academic history (which is pretty typical for my eclectic tastes). I find genre shifts help me stay more engaged and read with closer attention (though it could just be I’m easily distracted by new avenues of thought). I keep my reading list up to date in case you’re curious for the full list.

One thin, practical book I tried to absorb as much as possible was How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Ahrens’ premise is that notes are the starting point for writing and it’s through writing that we learn. The system he describes draws from the work of Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who wrote at a prolific pace. The basic idea is to write short, individual notes, review them daily, and file them into a system (analog or digital) that creates connections between notes. Those connections help us deepen our understanding and explore topics in greater depth.

This inverts the typical writing process, or at least how it’s taught. Instead of starting with a topic and constructing a reading list and questions from there, you start with reading and out of that generate topics and questions to explore. If you do this well you shift from not knowing what to write about to having too many topics to choose from.

Ahrens’ also suggests that writing creates distance between us and a book. He describes how this distance is required in order to think about an argument instead of just within that argument. Notes and the writing they lead to become not a record of our thought but our thinking itself.

It’s a book I wish I read while still in college. Even outside an academic context, though, I found it valuable and have been tinkering with Obsidian to see how I can implement its core ideas.

In a different genre, Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy is a delightful set of books. His Chronicles of Prydain holds fond childhood memories. But, somehow, I never got to Westmark.

What I find so enjoyable about the series is its constrained ambition. It’s not a story of existential struggle for humanity; it’s just fun, with well-developed characters and a concise plot. The trilogy has this lightheartedness that lets you enjoy its world for a moment.

I also read two in-depth history books: David Abulafia’s The Great Sea and Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War. It’s fun to pick up small anecdotes within these larger histories. I often imagine the author’s joy at unearthing some obscure, humorous detail in their research.

The Great Sea is a history of the Mediterranean through what took place on its seas. Among impeccable research and detail is this gem:

In 1599 the Venetians were so exasperated by the Uskoks that they sent a cargo of poisoned wine into Uskok-infested waters, let it be captured, and hoped to hear that the Uskoks had all died from drinking it. Since they remained full of life, however, the ruse obviously failed.1

Imagine being assigned to crew that ship. You wonder what happened to all the poisoned wine and what Uskok conversations were like as they headed back to port.

Or, from War and Peace and War, there’s this description of Elizabeth I’s creative taxation (slash rebellion suppression) system:

When one of her subjects became too wealthy, she invited herself to his castle along with her whole court. After some weeks of dining and wining the queen and hundreds of her followers, the unfortunate host was financially ruined for many years to come, and was too busy paying off his debts to contemplate rebellion.2

That sounds like a gentler approach than Elizabeth’s predecessors, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who would simply kill landowners who got too wealthy.

My reading lists3 remain a mess, but I did add 4 books in particular that I look forward to reading. Through The Long Now’s excellent Seminars About Long-term Thinking I found The Optimist’s Telescope and More From Less. Both Bina Venkataraman and Andrew McAfee gave excellent talks as part of the seminar series. And from Marginal Revolution I added Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker and Tom Zoellner’s Island on Fire, which covers an episode in Jamaica’s history that I know nothing about.

  1. Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. Oxford University Press, 2013, pg. 457.
  2. Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War. Plume, 2007, pg. 272.
  3. Lists are one of the least-functional aspects of Amazon’s empire. They’re so basic and, at times, illogical it merits its own post.