March 26th, 2021

📝 My Way of Reading and Writing

What infernal process drives the production of this website?

The past couple of years I've started to converge on some kind of workflow for what I like to call "my research." It's kind of an ADHD-style infernal machine rather than some steady studious ship on the sea of knowledge, but I think it could be put to work on long-term intentional projects, if I had any of those.

Actually there's not much to it. I'm not going to make an online course to teach my system. It's more like a bunch of habits I've acquired and a lot of it is just a natural expression of my personal mix of laziness and restlessness. But someone asked me out of curiosity, and it also seems interesting for me to try to describe what I do.

What's My System?

Technically, the main thing is that I highlight salient stuff in books, articles, and web pages, which highlights then get synced into my Roam graph automatically via Readwise so I can then search them, browse them, and reference them in my own notes and posts.

Books I mostly read on Kindle, where I've been making highlights for years in lots of books. With articles from the internet, I now use Instapaper because it integrates with Readwise, and I like it a lot. There's also hypothes.is which is a neat browser extension for making highlights on arbitrary pages, and which also integrates with Readwise.

So I'm writing this in Roam, which means I can link to a word, even if I don't have a page of that name, and then shift-click that link to get a sidebar where I can see all mentions of that word in all my highlights, going back to 2011, and drag them back as "block references" in the post I'm writing.

Instead of dragging from the sidebar, I can also use Roam's hierarchical block search (with the funky shortcut Ctrl-Shift-9) where I can first find a particular book or article and then search in there for something without using the mouse at all, which is great when I know what I'm looking for.

Until recently I published by just linking to my public Roam notes on Twitter. This was a great way to get started, but it's slow and heavy for readers to load the whole Roam app and my database just to read a text, so I wrote a program that turns my graph into a static HTML website. It's an idiosyncratic program right now, but you can see the source code on GitHub if you really want to.

About Writing

Roam encourages the writing of daily notes. I used to do all of this in a private Roam graph, where my daily notes would be a jumble of nested thoughts, digressions, todos, self-admonitions, and utterances of despair hyperlinked in with whatever obscure book about ontology I was skimming at the time.

Then I moved to a public graph, as I describe in my first post here, 📝 Starting a Public Notebook. This felt like a revelation. It seemed to open up a way of writing in public that could be way more fun than any of my previous abortive attempts at being a blogger.

Especially the idea of writing daily quick notes with lots of references appeals to me. I hated blogging because I never felt like the post was done enough, so I just kept futzing with it for several days until I was too nauseated to continue.

My only fun blogging time was a few months when I worked in Amsterdam and decided to write a blog post every weekend. I had a nationwide museum card, and so on Saturday I would go to someplace—like the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, or this one little tobacco pipe museum. I would jot down some notes on paper; then I would go home, smoke a joint, and do an intense session of research and writing in a personal essay style that imitated Phillip Lopate and David Foster Wallace. On Sunday I would do some editing and publish it.

Lopate has a nice book about nonfiction writing called 📙 To Show and to Tell. Since I have my highlights right here, I can easily show you some parts that inspired me:

The solution to entrapment in the narcissistic hothouse of self is not to relinquish autobiographical writing, but to expand the self by bringing one’s curiosity to interface with more and more history and the present world. *
Nonfiction writing thrives on daring, darting, subjective flights of thought. You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, the most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they may point to an element of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible. *
Being trained generalists—that is to say, quick studies who can leap opportunistically on intriguing vignettes and facts, give them a vivid twist, and forget the rest—veteran journalists know that they don’t have to become specialists, they just have to absorb enough of the material under scrutiny this week or month to file an interesting story. When you are researching, what you are looking for, subconsciously or not, is the oddity that will spark your imagination—not necessarily the most important detail, but the one that will excite your love of paradox or sense of humor. *

I still feel pretty confused about writing, but in some way I'm also on a roll. I'm doing some kind of vague and sprawling project of philosophical research that goes into different themes like virtue ethics, the phenomenology of mental disorder, the unity and multiplicity of the self, narrative forms of life, and so on.

Sometimes it seems a bit crazy. I often think I want to find some more personal, poetic, artistic form of writing. But I also have some kind of ambition of writing something like a book. We'll see where it goes. Anyway, I'm just happy to be reading and writing.

About Reading

I don't usually read books in a linear way. Instead I buy a book because I'm interested in some topic or question and then I scour it for juicy relevant parts. It happens that a book is so nicely written and completely interesting that I end up reading the whole thing in a few days, but much more often I just get my feet wet in some chapter and then leave it until I feel compelled to go back. With some books I end up having read all of it, but in a random order, over months or years.

To me, a book is a thing I can use however I want. I've found that if I try to insist on reading books linearly, I just get frustrated and bored. Instead my book-reading process is asynchronous, demand-driven, and stochastic, which seems to free up my mental resources and make the whole thing more generative and fun. My approach is vaguely similar to that of 📙 How to Read a Book but less systematic and serious.

I remember being confused about what it means to "read" a book. For example, if you try to read a math textbook in the normal way of reading a text, you will fail to engage with the content in a meaningful way that teaches you anything. You have to do the exercises and follow the proofs.

The math community judges books by the quality of their exercises, and so with a reputable math book it's relatively clear what reading it entails—but then again, it's notoriously impossible to describe how grokking math actually works.

With other types of books, unless they're straight narrative stories, I always felt unable to just receive the information by reading the text. I felt restless and passive, but "taking notes" or "summarizing" wasn't enjoyable either.

Now I have something to do with books: I make highlights. And I even have something to do with the highlights. They go into the Roam graph where I expect to use them in the future. So there's a little economy, a Machine with flows and drives and purposes.

When I make highlights there's an implicit social dimension, because I'm looking for fragments that might eventually be useful in a public post. In 📙 The Post-Digital Manifesto, Rasmus Fleischer describes how music listening "acquires some of the traits of a low-intensity performance *" when one knows that one's plays are tracked and published, and my web site's front page list of recent highlights has a similar effect.

Some Quotes About Reading

Let's see what I can dig up about Reading in my graph.

There's David R. MacIver's recent 📰 Fragments: Pandemic Moods, Reading and Writing where I highlighted this part:

A thing I've been thinking about recently is that people never really learn how to be readers. People can read, but there’s more to being a reader than simply knowing how to read. *

There's the medieval 📙 The Imitation of Christ, where I highlighted some spiritual advice that seemed relevant:

Oh, how swiftly the glory of the world passes away! If only their lives had been in harmony with their learning, then all their studying and reading would have been worthwhile. *
Endless reading and talk do not satisfy the soul, but a good life puts the mind at rest, and a clean conscience brings great confidence in God. *
If you wish to profit from your reading, read with Humility, simplicity and faith, and do not try to impress others with your great learning. *

Ah, and there's a nice ongoing series by Will Buckingham about reading philosophy. In 📰 7 Ways of Reading Philosophy: #1 Reading Like Napoleon, he describes something quite similar to my approach.

Instead of reading carefully, understanding each sentence on the basis of the one before, Rosenzweig suggests a different approach. We should charge ahead, he says. Philosophy books, “want to be conquered Napoleonically, in a bold attack on the enemy's central force, upon the conquest of which the small outlying fortifications will fall automatically.” *
So when reading philosophy, and when things seem difficult and make no sense, this is the time to mount your horse and head into the fray, overflowing with fearless energy. *

I also attack the books instead of reading carefully. It's not always because I want to conquer the main argument; sometimes I just want to sneak away with some useful sentence related to something I'm thinking about at the moment.

By the way, "overflowing with fearless energy" reminds me of a passage I just love from 📙 The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, writing to his brother Theo:

Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you like some imbecile. You don’t know how paralysing that is, that stare of a blank canvas, which says to the painter: you can’t do a thing. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of "you can’t" once and for all. Life itself, too, is forever turning an infinitely vacant, disheartening, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears, any more than it does on a blank canvas. But no matter how vacant and vain, how dead life may appear to be, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. *

Here's a quote from 📙 Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, a great book about modern national identity as grounded in the communal experience of reading the same novels and newspapers in vernacular print languages. This quote illustrates Serendipity because it links to a topic I've been writing about lately:

Reading a newspaper is like reading a novel whose author has abandoned any thought of a coherent Plot. *

Inserting that quote in this post makes me think about the incoherence of my own reading habit, but also about how reading for me is about being in the world, feeling connected, belonging to some kind of Republic of Letters, as I mentioned a month ago:

We are an obscure, nebulous, and nonlocal entity, but it seems right to think of it in this way. We're not exactly ancient Athens, but we are a kind of Republic of Letters on the internet, bootstrapping new circuits of virtuous freedom within a decaying old order. *

Life as a drama with an incoherent tangle of plots is a theme I explored in 📝 Losing the Plot — Ethics and The Big Lebowski. This is tangential to the post I'm supposed to be writing here, but this is also a demonstration of how I operate haphazardly, losing the plot but weaving connections for fun. And so I see this paragraph in that post:

The critical argument of 📙 After Virtue is that we now generally suffer from a disrupted ability to make sense of our lives as coherent stories within larger common stories. In some way Modernity has lost the plot. *

Which makes me see how there's a fruitful connection between 📙 After Virtue and 📙 Imagined Communities that I hadn't thought about before.

The last source I found on the topic of Reading was in 📙 The Practice of Everyday Life. This is one of those books I imagine reading in its entirety sometime when I'm a retired old man with lots of free time, but from what I can tell, it supports my idiosyncratic reading methods. Apparently back in 2015, I highlighted quotes like these:

In reality, the activity of reading has on the contrary all the characteristics of a silent production. *
This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment. *
Many everyday practices (talking, reading, moving about, shopping, cooking, etc.) are tactical in character. *

Yes, reading is a tactical practice where everyday interventions make texts habitable. They become incorporated into my own strange and unplanned city of hyperlinked pages where I can go for an evening stroll and surprise myself.


As usual I'm up past my bedtime and this post is way longer than I expected. Ask me on Twitter if you're curious about any of this!

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