Posted by: holdenlee | March 22, 2015

Notes on writing about books


To come soon: notes on The Grasshopper King (Jordan Ellenberg), A Passage to India (E. M. Forster).

But first, a little note, on what I’m doing with these posts on books. For most of my life, I’ve read lots of books, many of which I’ve really enjoyed but remembered very little about, and am hardly able to talk about them at all. Much in the spirit of Socrates’s quote “the unexamined life is not worth living,” I’m deciding to take notes on books I read and write a little about each one that I feel I’ve enjoyed. This means that each book may take me about twice as long to read, but it feels to me to be worth it. I may not be so detailed in the future, but I do want to capture my thoughts for each book. (I listened to Moonwalking with Einstein recently, which raises these questions in a much deeper way – but that’s another post.)

There’s two halves to this notetaking and writing. One part is (a) simply recording summaries and quotes (perhaps with brief notes) indexed into the book, and the other is (b) a post on my thoughts.

Firstly, making chapter/page notes on workflowy (a) will hopefully, make everything that was significant to me in the book easily indexable. My secret hope is that other people will do this, and there will be a whole library of these “indexed summaries/quotes/impressions” online, so that we can much more easily draw upon ideas, feelings, and quotes from books (or movies, etc.) in our conversations, as well as compare different people’s responses side by side. (This is the basic idea of the “backchannel” idea I had, adapted to books – I would love for such a site to exist. It would be like opening up a book and finding that the previous reader had left a bunch of post-it notes inside on their thoughts – but this for everyone who logs their thoughts on the site.) Notes aren’t meant to be a replacement for the book itself, more like a way to remember it without rereading it. I don’t think this is prevalent idea at all – there are terse summaries of books, and there is the book itself, and there are literary essays which are a bit detached, but nothing in the middle.

(b) My posts aren’t so much reviews – they’ll pretty much spoil the most important parts of the plot – but rather me trying to get to the essence of what the book is saying to me, and how I think about it. There’ll be lots of quotes, because nothing captures the essence of a book better than quotes from the actual books. They’re not going to be like literary essays. Books, I think, are meant to be taken in the context of life, so I’ll write about what it suggests about love, faith, death, whatever.

How to read these posts? Two ways, I think. One is to read the book yourself, and then read my post to see what someone else thought and remembered about it, to compare with your own thoughts. Another is to say, I don’t have time to read this book, so I’m just going to read this post. There’s many more books than I have time to read, and it seems a winning proposition for people to write down these essences of books to communicate.

Importantly, the posts aren’t a factual summary (which by itself would be hard to remember anyway). To me, the more important thing is to try and capture what the book meant to me, the thoughts and questions that it brought up in my head, the kind of things I would want to talk about in a discussion on the book. The filler material between the quotes from the book will be my own interpretation of things, which should be taken to be “in the world of the book as it exists in impressions in my head.” One thing that keeps people from talking about books more, I think, is that English class encourages a certain kind of literary analysis, giving the impression that intelligent discussion has to involve this kind of literary analysis, when it can, and should, I think, simply start with one’s feelings about the book. Books make us all feel, therefore we can talk about them.

Anyway, if all works out I’ll keep writing these. So I would love to have discussions of this process, how these posts/notes might work better! It’s working for me so far, but I don’t know if anyone else thinks they’re useful in the way I describe.

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