Review-writing as note-taking

For years, I took extensive notes on every book I read. This was tedious and mostly pointless. I rarely used the notes; they were dull, disorganized, unfocused, and far too long, yet short on insight.

The notes were low-value because I was only investing time in them, not serious thought. I would copy or paraphrase everything that seemed even moderately interesting, and I would jot down quick initial reactions. But I procrastinated the more valuable work: reconciling the book’s ideas with my existing beliefs, forming and justifying conclusions about them, making deliberate choices about what to try to remember and what to let go of…

Early last year I realized that I do often reread old reviews that I wrote. They’re more useful as “notes”, even for myself, than my private notes ever were: they’re shorter and more selective, more organized, and involve more synthesis and argumentation. Why? Because knowing someone else might read them motivates me to work harder on them.

So, I decided to drastically cut back on note-taking, and instead write a review of every book I read (posted here and on goodreads). It’s been a satisfying exercise so far. Writing can be an excruciatingly slow process for me; even when I know what I want to communicate, I spend absurd amounts of time writing and re-re-rewriting every sentence.1 But I also feel like I think more clearly and deeply about things when I’m trying to write than at any other time.

  1. Yes, I’m the person in the messaging app who’s been “typing…” for 90 minutes. No, I don’t want to explain why it took me an hour and a half of editing to ultimately respond “lol :P” ↩︎