This post is part of “How We Will Read,” an interview series exploring the future of books from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. Read our kickoff post with Steven Johnson here. And check out our new homepage, a captivating new way to explore Findings.
This week we were extraordinarily lucky to get some of the precious time of Maria Popova, the Internet’s most awesome curator. Maria is best known for her site Brainpickings, in which she and her co-curators find the most interesting stuff on the web, consistently — typically, what is the most beautiful, inspiring, and poignant. Maria, unlike many of the rest of us, approaches the vastness of the web with a sense of wonder that is infectious. Her work always communicates the passionate belief that the connectedness and openness of the Internet can foster creativity, curiosity, innovation, and growth. We all adore Maria and were thrilled she could talk to us — because in addition to her extraordinary insight on creativity, she also loves reading, and had much to say not just on what books are, but also on what books ought to be.
How do you do most of your reading and annotating these days?
I prefer digital — Kindle on iPad is my weapon of choice. (Despite its many design and usability flaws, which are the subject of another conversation.) I’m an active marginalian and like being able to switch between my reading and Evernote, where I save quotes from and notes on the reading material in question. I also read a fair amount of longform on Instapaper, mostly at the gym during my morning workout. It’s safe to say I only ever use the iPad for Instapaper, Evernote, and Kindle. In fact, reading is the sole reason I got one.
That said, I read a lot of old books, most of which are not available on Kindle. Because I didn’t grow up in the U.S. and only moved here for college, I’ve always felt like I have this vast literary debt. I try to do an old book for every “new” book I get. And because most of my reading springs from the wonderful mesh of allusions and references of which literature is woven, this creates an interesting bipolar rabbit hole of past and present driving my discoveries and decisions on what to read next. It’s a beautiful process of controlled serendipity, but it can also get very overwhelming.
Because I’m a writer as much as a reader, I often take notes with the awareness that I’ll be writing about what I’m reading. I think this changes the lens of reading significantly, and marginalia play an enormous part of that. As I mentioned, I save a lot of clips and quotes and notes, but that’s a surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly — laborious task. On the one hand, when I’m reading on paper — which tends to be the case with all the vintage books I read — saving something to Evernote means manually transcribing it. I do that a shameful amount, sometimes transcribing entire pages I know I’ll need to refer to. I estimate I type anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 words a week just transcribing what I’m reading. (I eagerly await the day our technology is good enough to automatically and perfectly transcribe text you take a photo of. Until then, an intern would suffice.)
On the other hand, with digital, DRM regulations are making it extremely difficult, or purposely impossible, to export highlights. (This is partly why Findings makes my life easier.) Which means we’re either back to manual transcription or, my recent embarrassment of choice, taking a screenshot of the highlight on the Kindle iPad app, then emailing the photo to my Evernote email. Evernote has optical character recognition, so searching for a keyword will also fetch results from images of text, not just typed text.
How has reading become more social for you?
I have a friend who “skims” books by turning on the popular highlights feature in Kindle and only reading those. It works for her, but to me that’s the death of reading.
Reading is a bootcamp for developing and exercising critical thinking. Without that — intellectual apocalypse! And critical thinking is about developing a point of view, and all writing is — or, should be — about arguing a point of view, implicitly or explicitly. When you bring the crowd into the equation, this concept completely disappears — because a crowd cannot have a point of view, at least not one that is simultaneously focused and authentic to each individual in the crowd.
I don’t need a focus group of strangers to tell me what I should be reading or, more dangerously, how to read what I’m reading. Decision by committee doesn’t work in creative labor, and it certainly doesn’t work in intellectual labor.
Mortimer Aldler, in the wonderful How to Read a Book, says that marginalia are your private dialogue with the author, the intellectual tug-of-war that is really the greatest compliment you can pay an author. Being guided by other people’s marginalia is like letting a thousand voices into your head while trying to hold a challenging debate. Have those conversations, by all means, but do so over dinner or tea with people whom you respect and only after you have read the very thing you’re going to discuss and made up your mind about it.
“Listen, then make up your mind,” Gay Talese famously said about the secret of writing. It’s only logical that this should be inverted when it comes to reading: “Make up your mind, then listen.”
That said, I find it intriguing to see what and how individual people I respect — as opposed to an amalgamated “crowd” — are reading. I subscribe to Steven’s findings via RSS, for instance, and have made it a game of trying to figure out what his next article or book will be based on what he’s reading. I often add those items to my own reading list — I think there’s nothing wrong with complementing your own literary diet and curiosity with discoveries from individual readers you respect.