Writing Book Summaries

Lately I've been reading a lot, or more than I used to.

I only read 3 books last year, an unfortunate state of affairs. This year, my goal is to read 24 books. It's early February and I've already read 4. So I'm making good progress!

The way I've been reading analytically is I scribble notes and thoughts in the margin, underline words that have specific utility and meaning to me, and writing short summarize at the end of each chapter. Then, once I've arrived at the end, completing the journey with the final few words on the last page, I capture quotes that help me cling to the ideas exuded from the books. That's my method for "summarizing" books.

I've been reading books that are relevant to my life right now. I read Proust because it involved themes of suffering and love. I read Frankl because I wanted to make sense of my suffering and answer the big question of "what is meaning of life?". I read Elements of Style on a whim because I wanted to improve my writing. And I read Rilke's letters to Kappus because it reminds me to let life take its course, to embrace solitude, and to live the questions. Right now, I'm reading "Burnout Society" because given my neuroticism, I burn out easily, and I'm hoping to find a solution.

Mortimer Adler, in "How to Read A Book", discusses four levels of reading. The fourth is syntopical reading, which is reading books around the same topic.

I propose Existential reading, reading books around with themes, ideas, challenges that are revolving around one's life.

One thing I want to do is reread these books. Good books should be read twice or more. I believe that is more important than summarizing books.

Good reading is rereading. You can't really understand a book deeply on first reading because you lacked the ground to stand on and the benefit of retrospection. Rereading helps you focus on details you missed the first time.

I like Susan Rigetti's method for studying philosophy:

  • First read: Read casually, as if you’re reading a novel or a newspaper or magazine article. Your goal here is simply to observe, not to engage (yet).
  • Second read: This time, read to understand. Take notes. Ask yourself, “what does the author really mean here?” Summarize things in your own words. Try to break down the arguments being presented into bullet points, identifying the premises and the conclusions. When you read a term you are unfamiliar with or want to understand better, google it or look it up in the SEP.
  • Third read: Read again, and this time engage with the text. Go back to your notes, where you identified the arguments being presented. Think of arguments in favor of what the author is saying and arguments against. Think of counterexamples.
  • Fourth read: Now read for one last time. Read casually, the way you did in the first read. Notice how your understanding of the text is now so much richer and deeper than it was on the first read.

Another thing I want to be better at is instead of just summarizing books. I want to remix ideas, and write them in my own words. I want to really think deeply for myself about what I read. That's when the learning happens, by applying it to the context of my life. My mind is a living collection of memories and ideas that are birthing, dying and rebirthing, simultaneously, every second of my fragile existence.