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The Significance of Reading Books, Keys to Retaining what you Read, & Project Support Materials

Resource: Brainpicking’s article — Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World
Description: Reflections on the value of reading


Reading appears to be a time-wasting activity, but it’s actually a time-saving activity. Through reading, we gain the benefits of learning through other people’s lives. We take on experiences and relationships that might not be otherwise possible for us.

Literature is way of relaxing and having fun, but it’s also a tool for personal growth. By engaging well-written stories we increase empathy and self-knowledge.

All we have is the universe and the minds that seek to understand that universe. Books are among are greatest aides at improving this understanding. They groom the mind to make interesting discoveries and connections.

There is a difference between taking notes and making notes. The former is about copying and saving. The latter is about having a conversation with what you read. It’s about making your impression on the book as the book makes it’s impression on you.


“If you’re lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will come upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace.” -Maria Popova

“Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World.” -Mary Ruefle.

“In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.” -Mary Ruefle.

“It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.” -Alain de Botton

“George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can’t read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, “The giraffe speaks!” in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?”

Resource: Farnam Street Blog — A System for Remembering What You Read
Resource: Tips on retaining what you read


Preview your reading materials ahead of time to get a glimpse of the big picture. Scan the table of contents, back cover, insider cover, index, etc. Give yourself a frame before beginning. Know where the author intends to take you.

Don’t be afraid to say “this is not a good time for me to read this book.”

If a book has ceased being interesting to you, either stop reading it altogether or take a breathe.

Give your books a little breathing room. After finishing a book, take a week away from it. Then return to review your notes. Make a note of what still seems relevant and what now seems newly interesting.

Use marginalia to capture the mental/emotional experience you’re having as you read.

Note your questions.

Write summaries of what you read after each chapter (without looking back).

Write a summary of the book when you finish (without looking back).

Make notes about how you can apply the information to your life.

What you read is just as important as how you read. Focus on learning principles and mental models that have stood the test of time rather than just going after new and complex material. Your understanding of principles and mental models will make it easier to understand and remember other things.


“We fail to remember a lot of the stuff we read because it’s not building on any existing knowledge. We’re often trying to learn complex things (that change rapidly) without understanding the basic things (which change slowly or not at all). Or, worse still, we’re uncritically letting other people do the thinking for us. This is the adult equivalent of regurgitating the definition of a boldface word in our high school textbook. Both of these habits lead to the illusion of knowledge and to overconfidence. I’d argue that a better approach is to build a latticework of mental models. That is, acquire core multi-disciplinary knowledge and use that as your foundation. This is the best investment because this stuff doesn’t change, or if it does, it changes really slowly. This knowledge becomes your foundation. This is what you build on. So when you read and connect things to the core knowledge, not only do you have a better idea of how things fit together, but you also strengthen those connections in your head.”

“If you’re looking to acquire worldly wisdom, time is your best filter. It makes sense to focus on learning the core ideas over multiple disciplines. These remain constant. And when you have a solid foundation, it’s easier to build upon because you connect what you’re learning to that (now very solid) foundation.”

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen


Project support materials refers to notes, ideas, details, and ad-hoc considerations related to your project.

Keep your project support materials separate from your project reminders.

Your reference system is a great place to file project support materials, but make sure they are readily accessible. It may be best to have a sub-folder in your reference area specifically for project materials.

Keep an active folder and an archived folder to separate things you need for next actions from things that have aided you in the past, but that you may or may not need in the future.


“Project support materials are not project actions, and they’re not project reminders. They’re resources to support your actions and thinking about your projects. “

“What continues to talk to you psychologically in your environment, demanding that you do something about it? “

“Typically, people use stacks of paper, stuffed file folders, and/or a plethora of e-mails and digital documents as reminders that (1) they’ve got a project, and (2) they’ve got to do something about it. They’re essentially making support materials serve as action reminders. The problem is that next actions and Waiting For items on these projects have usually not been determined and are psychologically still embedded in the stacks and the files and e-mails—giving them the aura of just more stuff that repels its (un)organizer instead of attracting him or her to action. It delivers an incessant subliminal chant: “Do something about me! Decide something about me! Follow up with something about me!” When you’re on the run, in the heat of the activities of the day, files like that are the last things you’ll want to pick up and peruse for actions. You’ll actually go numb to the files and the piles because they don’t prompt you to do anything and they simply create more mental noise and emotional anxiety. “

“To reiterate, you don’t want to use support materials as your primary reminders of what to do—that should be relegated to your action lists. If, however, the materials contain project plans and overviews in addition to ad hoc archival and reference information, you may want to keep them a little more visibly accessible than you do the pure reference materials in your filing cabinet or on your computer. “

“you will often have ideas that you’ll want to keep about projects but that are not necessarily next actions. Those ideas fall into the broad category of “project support materials,” and may be anything from a notion about something you might want to do on your next vacation to a clarification of some major components in a project plan. “

“There is no need ever to lose an idea about a project, theme, or topic. “

“The inherent danger in the digital world is how much data can be spread into how many different places so easily, without coordinating links. The bad news about the good news of the huge assortment of options for digital project support is the ease with which we are seduced into spreading potentially meaningful information into such a multiplicity of locations and mechanisms that it can take us almost back to square one: we don’t know where it all is, can’t see it all integrated for appropriate overviewing from the right perspective at the right time, aren’t sure exactly how to put what data where . . . so we wind up trying to keep it all coordinated back in our heads! The key is that you must consistently look for any action steps inherent in your project notes, and review the notes themselves as often as you think it is necessary, given the nature of the project. “

“You’ll also want to clear out many of your notes once they become inactive, unreal, or redundant, to keep the whole system from catching the “stale” virus. I’ve found a lot of value in capturing these types of thoughts, more for the way it consistently helps my thinking process than because I end up using every idea (most I don’t!). But I try to make sure not to let my old thoughts stay around too long, pretending they’re useful when they’re not. “

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