Fingerspitzengefuhl for Books: Developing a Fingertip Feel for Everything You’ve Ever Read

April 10, 2008 — 15 Comments

In the fall of 2006, I wrote my first college paper sourced entirely from my own library. As I’d stared at the paper prompt, I realized I not only knew which books to pull from my shelf but almost photographically, exactly which words to quote. It took me a long time to get there. For over four years, I’d been marking up anything I found remotely interesting in the books I read. I had started with rudimentary page folding and slowly developing a complex system for organizing and distributing what I’d discovered.

It’s funny because I actually have a horrible memory. I’ll often hear someone finish a story and realize I don’t remember a word they said, even though we’d been talking for twenty minutes. But I do have the ability to recall anecdotes and evidence buried deep in books I haven’t looked at in months. I do it by sign posting – by marking the idea as it strikes me, knowing that I might need it later. I certainly wasn’t born with that skill, instead I developed the foundation that made it possible.

Last week, I called my girlfriend at home and asked her to get my copy of The Art of Fiction. Somewhere near the front, I said, is a line that uses dreaming as metaphor for the concept of aesthetic distance. Sure enough, tabbed and highlighted was the idea of fiction as a “vivid and continuous dream.” I hadn’t touched the book since I read it for a class a year and a half ago. The thread I worked it into did 21,000 pageviews. When one of the bands we’re working with pitched an idea for a business they’d like to develop, I photocopied a section I’d marked in Wikinomics and it’s turning into a monster of a project.

I used these quotes for blog posts, for business plans, for guerrilla marketing I do on the internet. I use them in conversation, I send them to friends. I’ve used them to connect with bestselling authors and multi-millionaires, through them I’ve developed my own growing following, and they’ve helped me through deeply personal issues. I’ve given citations for kids to use in research papers on everything from decentralized warfare and aestheticism. And I don’t know if you remember, but I’m a college dropout from a relatively mediocre school. I shouldn’t be able to do these things. Aside from my mentors, the only asset I can truly count on is the collection of ideas, anecdotes and quotes that I’ve built for myself. Over the last 6 year years, my library has gone from a hobby to priceless labor of love. It is without question, directly responsible for where I am today.

So How Do You Build Your Database?

Use Post It Highlighter Pens

I wrote about these in my Read to Lead post. There are a few different variations now and you need to be using them.

These will change how you read. On the right side of the page (so that you can open straight to it), I tag the pages I have highlighted important passages on. Don’t be afraid to tear the book up with tags–tape is cheap but the time it will take you to otherwise flip back through the book to track something down is not.

Mark the concepts to look up later

I put tabs at the top to mark words I need to define or concepts to explore further. It’s also how I remind myself to add a cited books to my Amazon Wishlist. BUT, once I look back through the top tabs, I remove them. Having tabs at the top of the book means I am falling behind, having none means I can safely put the book on my shelf.

Be realistic

Tucker will sometimes put 50 or 60 tabs in a single book. I think that’s too many. Personally, I like to keep it under 20 – marking only the important or profound. At a certain point, the flags become meaningless. The idea it separate the consequential from the filler so that you can quickly find what you’re looking for.

Make notes (Annotate)

The best way to build your database is to draft off someone else. Robert Greene was that person for me. As I come across things that prove the laws from his books, I mark them. I will write “Disdain the Things You Cannot Have” or Law 23 or “Enter Action with Boldness.” Using classic texts or books that try to establish universal rules are best for this technique. I’ll sometimes put a pithy statement by Seneca in the margins if it supports an author’s point or try and attribute the thought to the originator of the idea. This allows you to first, make connections but most importantly, capture the reason behind tabbing the page – so you can immediately recall it when you return. In all likelihood, you’ll never need these passages (since they’re support for books that have already been written) but they will help you practice. The funny thing about Robert is that since I’d been doing this for almost two years before we met, I was able to instantly draw from it when he asked me to research for his next book.

Type out the quotes:

From Old School:

So much, in fact, that I began to copy out Hemingway’s stories. I’d read an article about a writer’s colony in Marshall, Illinois, where the aspirants spent their mornings transcribing masterworks in order to learn what it actually felt like to write something great. I slowed myself to hunt-and-peck speed so I could feel the sentence take form, sense the shift in focus or tone when I struck the carriage return for a new paragraph; a thoughtful pause as I read over the page I’d just finished and slowly rolled a fresh one onto the platen, then the final period smacking home and all the joy of completion, the joy of Hemingway himself, as I rolled out the last sheet of “The Undefeated,” laid it upon the others, and squared the stack.

Find an outlet

Most people don’t read and let’s face it, are easily impressed by someone who does. Use that to your advantage. Make an effort to use what you’ve collected in conversation. Bounce the ideas off people you know. The more fulfilling an outlet you find for the fruit of your database, the more motivated you will be to fill it. Try adding a line to a report you’re doing, find solace in them during difficult times or insert them to Wikipedia pages. Do something.

Don’t loan out your books

This is selfish I know (especially since I occasionally borrow) but it’s important. You’re cultivating this library for life, not until you move on to the next book. You need to keep them in a place where you have easy access and the ability to immediately act on the impulse to follow a lead. I’m still missing copies of books I read as I was graduating high school and I will never get that time back. Rereading the books will never recover the way that a passage hit me or the mood in which I was able to understand something for the first time.

Practice runs

This is the most neurotic of my techniques, but probably the most important. If passage leaks into your head and you don’t remember who wrote it, track it down even if you don’t need it for anything at the moment. Don’t stop until you have. Try googling little phrases your know for sure are real, ask people if they remember you mentioning it, flip through as many tabs as you can. If the book is in the public domain, you can use Google Books to search through the text. Not only will it make you more efficient at researching but it will lock the passage in your memory forever.

And of course, the most important thing is time and volume. What good is a database filled with a just a handful of books? When you understand that this is a project aimed at paying dividends for the rest of your life, hopefully you’ll give it the dedication that it deserves. I vowed a long time ago that I would never consider money when I was thinking about buying a book – I just do it. Almost nothing else is a more justified place to funnel resources toward.

I am passionately urging you to start this process. I cannot stress how much it has helped me, both personally and otherwise. A book read without a concerted effort to mark and connect as I have outlined is an opportunity wasted. Why would you do that?

More from me:
Read to Lead: The Secret Code for Cracking ‘Tough’ Books and Reading Above Your Level – (Forbes.com)

Sign up for my monthly reading list email (or, get Books to Base Your Life On)

On the Spartans and the Perfect Paper – May 14, 2007

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

15 responses to Fingerspitzengefuhl for Books: Developing a Fingertip Feel for Everything You’ve Ever Read

  1. I read a lot. I find solace in the deep contemplation necessary while reading a truly great work written by some past intellectual titan. Understanding the concepts truly requires wrestling with the ideas, which is what I love most about books, and, more precisely, life in general. I’m fascinated with ideas. Though I have made a list of articles to consult and have written various quotes in a small notebook, I think I am going to begin taking more diligent notes using your recommendations. I am really glad I stumbled upon your blog and found this system. It’s more efficient than my own.

    I’m unfamiliar with your archives, so forgive me if you already have them listed. Can you possibly list some of the books that have had the greatest impact upon the way you view the world, or, more directly, what books represent the trunks of those conceptual trees? I’m currently discovering the various branches of economic theory and economic thought, backtracking my way through to find where the various branches originate. Perhaps we could trade recommendations if you’re interested in economics, though I think you may be covered in that area since Tucker Max has a degree in economics from Chicago. Anyway, thanks for having such an interesting blog.

  2. Check on the right side of Ryan’s blog, it says Reading list..Obviously a tiny amount of what he reads, but I’ve worked my way through it and there is a hell of a lot of great material there.

  3. Thanks for this. I remember doing using a pencil whilst I was reading “The Mating Mind” I was underlining every second sentence as if explosions of insight were going off in my head. Looking back now, tags would have been much better.

  4. Thanks, Ryan. Extremely useful. I’m still developing my own style of how to organize and break down my thoughts, notes, and connections of any book I read and study. This definitely helps out.

  5. Ryan,

    Thanks for sharing this, it’s really helpful. I’m just wondering what you think about the method, if I understood it correctly, from the book “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler and some other person I can’t remember the name of; he first tells you to do a superficial reading of the book, reading it through without ever stopping, and then do a more thorough reading. He writes that this allows you to understand the book better as you will have a better grasp of the concepts explained in the book and thus being able to see how everything fits together. What do you think about this method?

  6. I totally feel you on the loaning out books part. I used to loan out books that were really important to me, and I would never get them back. Good points on the reading. I like to markup books and all, but for some books that I really feel are valuable, I sometimes purchase two copies: one for annotation and one that I keep just for reader, and in good shape. I guess that may be my own crazy thing but I’ve literally destroyed books doing annotation, and some books are just too good to be destroyed. So thus the extra copy. For example, I have an extra copy of 33 strategies of war because it is just too good to not be annotated, but I also have a good, clean version.

    Exellent way of incorporation Fingerspitzengefuhl. I never thought about reading in that boydian sense. I don’t remember jack squat from school text books like I do from the ones in my personal library. But that just comes from time and reading them and the fact that anything you are interested in tends to be retained far easier.

    I think I am going to try to approach reading from this idea of boyd — although I probably are have been just unknowingly.

  7. Could you give us some insight on how you choose which books you want to read? Are all of your choices based on bibliographies of books you’ve already read or suggestions from Tucker and Robert? Do you just browse Amazon and see something that strikes you?

    I also wanted to throw out a quick thanks for putting up your reading list and wish list for everyone to see. I really started to build a library when I stumbled on Tucker’s reading list a few years ago and I feel like my life would be quite shallow in comparison if I hadn’t ever found this passion.

  8. Another great post, Ryan. I always look forward to reading your blog.

    Question: How do you file / sort / store info you get from blogs or articles on the web? I assume you keep quotes or relevant info somewhere other than del.icio.us?

    Scott

  9. Anoymous:

    I was just going to say — dunno about Ryan — but often when I am interested in a work, I will scan the bibliography and buy books that way. I’m sure Ryan may do the same.

  10. Kind of an odd question…do you feel that reading voraciously has improved your memory in any way? Maybe I’m just a nut, but I know for a fact that my short-term memory and overall ability to recall minutia has improved from reading books that are “above my level.”

    Sidenote: I get a sense of smug satisfaction when I look through the bibliography of a book and recognize most of the sources. Then I have to shotgun a beer and work out lest I be mistaken for a nerd.

  11. Imagine you eat only the classic American food, no mexican, Chinese, Thai Arabian or Greek. I wonder if you read only Western authors and western articles, is it the same feeling.

  12. Charlie Murphy April 14, 2008 at 3:28 pm

    Posts like this make me glad I don’t read the editorial section, lest I be exposed to some pundit overemphasizing the power of the internet. There’s great potential, but I know books will never be replaced.

  13. Ryan,

    I’m sure you have already seen this, but I wanted to congratulate you on having this post mentioned on Marginal Revolution.

    Your advice, as always, is great — so no surprises that someone like Tyler Cowen has picked up on it as well.

  14. Do you focus on one book until you finish it? Or are you in the middle of several books at the same time?

  15. Hey Ryan. You live in LA, right? If I were ever in the area, would you be interested in getting coffee? Do you ever go up to Portland?

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