How I retain insights from my reading

I read and listen to a fair number of books. Yesterday I received this query.

I tend to remember little of what I read. That’s why I write it all down. In the words of Henry Jones, Sr., “I wrote them down…so that I wouldn’t *have* to remember.”

I have two strategies for remembering. First, I take notes. I use the note-taking and note-managing app Evernote. For each new book I read, I create a new note. As I listen to an audiobook or read a print book, I pause and make a note of a line or passage that I find particularly insightful. If it’s an audiobook, I’ll use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to search for the exact wording. At the end of reading the book, I have a list of the lines and insights I learned from. I’ll often label them with a topic. Evernote has a good search function, so it’s relatively easy for me to find those lines later, even if I don’t remember what book it was from.

Second, I try to write a short review of each book. Nowadays I post those here on this blog. The micro-review allows me to crystallize my main takeaways and whether I’d recommend the book to others.

What do you do to remember what you’ve learned from books?


What I’ve been reading this month – April 2018

exit westExit West, by Mohsin Hamid — “It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class…but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.” Gorgeously written, fast-paced novel about a couple falling in love and then forcing to seek refuge beyond the borders of their country. “The novel feels immediately canonical, so firm and unerring is Hamid’s understanding of our time and its most pressing questions” (Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker).

archaeopterix2Archaeopteryx, by Dan Darling — In a moment, all the birds flying over a nature reserve in New Mexico fall to the earth, dead. John Stick, a literal giant of a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone to care for the reptiles at the zoo, is pushed and prodded by a colorful array of characters to find out what happened. This magical realist thriller leads us to a corporation tampering with nature — with echoes of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau — while somehow also tackling Mexico-U.S. border issues. It’s a nonstop thrill ride, full of surprises, with heart (“If you memorized enough of TV, you didn’t ever have to say what you meant.”) and humor (“You’re liquid plumber. Your job is to flush away the evil block up the universe.”), all set in beautiful New Mexico. I couldn’t put it down.

an american marriageAn American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — When an African-American man is unjustly imprisoned, what’s the impact on the marriage that he and his wife share, barely a year old? “punishing questions, but they’re spun with tender patience by Jones, who cradles each of these characters in a story that pulls our sympathies in different directions” (Ron Charles, The Washington Post). Heartbreaking.

how to write shortHow to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times, by Roy Peter Clark — “In the hands of careful writers, a few good words can be worth a thousand pictures.” In the age of twitter and blogs, Clark instructs on how to write all things short. He provides beautiful examples of short writing throughout history (think The Gettysburg Address). “Identify and follow the work of literary men and women known for their ability to write short texts with focus, wit, and polish.” Speaking of wit, Clark provides it (and sometimes borrows it — with attribution — in spades): “As Dorothy Parker explained, ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.'”

binti homeBinti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor — “I hadn’t told my family about my hair not being hair anymore, that it was now a series of alien tentacles.” After stopping a war in Binti, the titular character returns to earth and begins to unlearn her own old prejudices about the peoples of her homeland. Okorafor explores how we choose new identities, how they sometimes are chosen for us, and how it both alienates us from our old life but opens doors to new lives.

flammableEverything Is Flammable, by Gabrielle Bell — In this meandering graphic memoir, Bell documents her anxieties and day-to-day struggles to help her mother. A few of the panels spoke deep truth to me. This graphic memoir was recommended on at least 6 “best of” lists for 2017.

The Black Monday Murders Volume 1, by Jonathan Hickman and Tommblack monday Coker — Schools of economics date back to ancient days and manipulate society for wealth. Oh, and cannibalism? Or drinking blood?

give and takeGive and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, by Adam Grant — A few years ago, I read a compelling profile of Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant in the New York Times Magazine. Grant’s philosophy is that giving generously can be a strategy not just to happiness but also to business success. In this book, he marshals a wide array of social psychology evidence to argue that many of the most successful — as well as the least successful — businesspeople are givers, with strategies for how to be in the former group, not the latter. Essentially, he’s trying to make kindness respectable.

spinning2Spinning, by Tillie Walden — A tween grows up and comes out while competing as an ice skater. The stress and fear is palpable. This graphic memoir was recommended on at least 4 “best of” lists for 2017.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, by Anne Lamott –small victories– “Getting found almost always means being lost for a while.” With witty irreverence, Lamott’s essays explore kindness, forgiveness, and love. Her own reflections are thoughtful, and she selects just the right passages to quote from other authors, like this one from Wendell Berry: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”

And before I go, here’s a thought on a particular brand of economics from the Black Monday Murders:

For complex debates, an alternative to social media

There is an alternative to Twitter, Facebook and all those indignant op-eds that we use to confirm the superiority of our beliefs. It’s a flexible, troll-free, hacker-resistant platform on which complex social and moral questions can be carefully explored. It simultaneously engages our empathy and models the action of empathy for us. It’s called a novel.

That’s Ron Charles in the Washington Post.

What were the best graphic books of 2017?

best graphicI’ve been reading more graphic books lately — graphic novels, graphic short stories, graphic memoirs, graphic biographies — and I’ve found that many outlets posted “best of 2017” lists.

I went through 15 “best of 2017” lists and identified the 100 graphic books that were recommended between them. A total of 10 books were recommended at least 3 “best of” lists. I’ve read half of the top 10, and they really are excellent, but there are many gems deeper down the list. So don’t stop digging.

The top 10 are listed below. The full list of 100 recommendations is available here. The numbering is funny because I use the same number — such 2a and 2b — if books received the same number of recommendations.

1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, by Ferris (recommended on 11 lists)

2a. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Bui (9 lists)

2b. Boundless, by Tamaki (9 lists)

4. Everything Is Flammable, by Bell (6 lists)

5. Hostage, by Delisle (5 lists)

6a. Imagine Only Wanting This, by Radtke (4 lists)

6b. Spinning, by Walden (4 lists)

8a. The Flintstones, Volume 1, by Russell & Pugh (3 lists)

8b. Shade the Changing Girl, Volume 1, by Castellucci & Zarcone (3 lists)

8c. You & a Bike & a Road, by Davis (3 lists)

Eight of the top ten are by women, which is cool (1, 2a, 2b, 4, 6a, 6b, 8b, and 8c).

Happy reading!


What I’ve been reading this month – March 2018

great escapeThe Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality, by Angus Deaton. Deaton — winner of the 2015 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences — offers a thorough and thoughtful history of inequalities in health and wealth. Within the broader analysis lies a wealth of gems: “The familiar concept of gross domestic product (GDP) is a good place to start (though it would be a very poor place to stop).” “In truth there are no experts on what a poor family ‘needs’ — except perhaps the poor family itself.” Much of the press coverage of this book focused on Deaton’s critique of foreign aid, which is interesting (whether you agree with it or not), but it’s a minority of the book.

best we could doThe Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, by Thi Bui — In this graphic memoir, a Vietnamese-American woman explores her family history and what it means for her own identity. She traces her parents’ stories during the Vietnam War, her family’s migration to the U.S. when she was a child, and their subsequent life as immigrants. It’s a beautiful and powerful and difficult tale. Abraham Riesman at Vulture: “Narratively intricate, intellectually fastidious, and visually stunning.” Publisher’s Weekly: A “mélange of comedy and tragedy, family love and brokenness.”

undoingThe Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds, by Michael Lewis — This is the fascinating story of an exceptional research collaboration that spanned decades, together with the resultant breakthroughs in psychology, with significant spillovers into economics and many other fields. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were pioneers in rethinking how we should think about how people think. Sunstein & Thaler in the New Yorker: Lewis tells “fascinating stories about intriguing people” and leaves “readers to make their own judgments about what lessons should be learned.” One great quote in the book — from Amos Tversky — points to an attribution problem that raises its head in development work constantly: “It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.”

boundlessBoundless, by Jillian Tamaki — This wonderfully weird collection of short stories in comic format ends mid-word, fittingly. The most original and intriguing graphic work I remember reading. Michael Cavna in the Washington Post: “Organically disorienting, visually jarring — and, sometimes, sublime.” Rachel Cooke in the Guardian: “Fleeting as they are – most [of the stories] can be read in as long as it takes to order and receive a latte – each one is as indelible as it is singular.”

paperbacks from hellPaperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, by Grady Hendrix with Will Errickson — I don’t read horror fiction. When I was a teenager I read some Stephen King; that’s about it. But the genre experienced a heyday in the 70s and 80s, and Hendrix and Errickson document it in this entertaining cultural history. We stroll through the variety of sub-genres (possessed animals; crazy clowns; haunted houses). Hendrix and Errickson pay special attention to cover art, which is often innovative and just-as-often absurd. While many (or most) of the books he describes sound objectively pretty bad, they still testify to the boundless imagination of the authorial race. For example, here’s a roadmap through horror novels about bad kids: “Why do children act out? They might be nature creatures (Nursery Tale, Strange Seed), possessed by a vengeful spirit (Judgment Day), covering up a murder (The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane), or plotting a murder (Harriet Said…). Maybe they’re an ape-human hybrid (The Sendai), getting attacked by snakes (The Accursed), a hammer-wielding hellion (Mama’s Little Girl), capable of raising the dead (The Savior), or juggling a second personality that’s probably a demon (Smart as the Devil).” Below are a few of the covers featured in the book, in case you need more enticement.


sourdoughSourdough, by Robin Sloan — Robin Sloan is back! A few years ago he wrote a delightful debut novel — Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — and I’ve been excited to get to this, his new novel. Jason Sheehan at NPR put it well: “Robin Sloan’s new novel, Sourdough, is exactly like his first book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, except that it’s not about books (exactly), but is absolutely about San Francisco, geeks, nerds, coders, secret societies, bizarrely low-impact conspiracies that solely concern single-noun obsessives (food, in this case, rather than books), and also robots. And books, too, actually, now that I think about it.” It also involves a magical sourdough starter and warring colonies of microbes. It’s great fun.

baking cakesBaking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin — Angel Tungaraza is a Tanzanian woman who has moved to Rwanda with her family and started a cake-baking business. She meets lots of interesting people and has interesting conversations with them. The novel is reminiscent of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in that it tries to say something about current issues while not really focusing on plot and not having any serious conflict. The World Bank and the IMF both appear, with unflattering characterizations. And one exchange about the source of motivation for development workers inspired one of my recent blog posts: “Perhaps these big organisations needed to pay big salaries if they wanted to attract the right kind of people; but Sophie had said that they were the wrong kind of people if they would not do the work for less. Ultimately they had concluded that the desire to make the world a better place was not something that belonged in a person’s pocket. No, it belonged in a person’s heart.”

never let you goNever Let You Go, by Chevy Stevens — Thriller! Set in British Columbia! About a women, her daughter, and her recently-released-from-prison abusive ex-husband. Exciting! I did not predict the ending.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell — Lovely coming-of-age story about an avid fangirlfan fiction author Cather over the course of her first year in college. I loved her writing professor and wish we’d seen more of her. I’ve never read any fan fiction (except a couple of pages of 50 Shades of Grey — which originated as Twilight fan fiction — over someone’s shoulder on the metro), but Cather’s sentiments are deeply relatable: “Maybe you think I’m a little crazy, but I only ever let people see the tip of my crazy iceberg. Underneath this veneer of slightly crazy and socially inept, I’m a complete disaster.”

Kids’ Stuff
waking the monstersHilo Book 4: Waking the Monsters, by Judd Winick — Girl’s mom wants her to be a cheerleader; she wants to be a ninja wizard instead. Robots! Aliens! So much awesomeness! Can’t wait for book 5! I love reading these with my kids.

How to pass French without knowing French…

…at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, anyway.

Michigan required that all PhD students in psychology pass a proficiency test in two foreign languages… [Amos Tversky] picked French. The test was to translate three pages from a book in the language: The student chose the book, and the tester chose the pages to translate. Amos went to the library and dug out a French math textbook with nothing but equations in it… The University of Michigan declared Amos Tversky proficient in French.

from Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.

How Angus Deaton thinks you can make the world a better place

When Princeton students come to talk with me, bringing their deep moral commitment to helping make the world a better, richer place, it is these ideas that I like to discuss, steering them away from plans to tithe from their future incomes, and from using their often formidable talents of persuasion to increase the amounts of foreign aid. I tell them to work on and within their own governments, persuading them to stop policies that hurt poor people, and to support international policies that make globalization work for poor people, not against them.

This is (almost) the end of Deaton’s book The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality. This counsel reminds me of the Commitment to Development Index, which shows that there are many policies that rich countries can enact to help the poor beyond their borders besides providing foreign aid, such as easier migration rules and lower tariffs.