How I Learn and Two Ways of Thinking About Book Summaries

Update Nov 2020: I have since split this into two posts and developed them further

How I Learn

  • Read non fiction books, take notes and summaries
  • Watch videos, take notes and summaries
  • Widens my radar, curating my consumption feed, join different communities, niches. Follow and interact with as many people people from diverse backgrounds with conflicting viewpoints.

How I read non fiction books

  • read 2-3 of book summaries other people created
  • summarise the summaries
  • read the book’s ToC
  • skim a couple of interesting pages / chapters
  • read the book’s last chapter, usually there’s summary
  • start reading if still interested

For each step: “is this (still) interesting? is this what I was looking for? what will I get here?”

How I consume audio/video content

  • Audio: while exercising, usually podcast (conversation). 1.5x speed, pausing on interesting points.
    • If short: jot down on simplenote, keywords, 2-4 phrases
    • If long: bookmark to come back to and transcribe later (I like having things in text, can remember better)
  • Video: on laptop, 1.5 – 2x speed, turn on caption, download caption if interesting (easily take notes)
    • I do similar note-taking pattern to audio but it’s more convenient to watch Youtube videos on desktop because Youtube doesn’t support playing in the background
    • it’s a hassle to keep Youtube on the phone’s screen, and I don’t want to pay for Youtube Red
    • split-screen mode helps though

Note: Note taking is also an indexing activity for me. I just keep the high level concepts, perhaps go a level deeper, but I still do it with the intention of going back and reviewing it later when I need it, or hoping it will come up for retrieval when I need it (JIT: Just In Time).

What I’m looking for

  • the main argument
  • how the author / content creator structure the arguments (find supporting arguments)
  • different angles, framing, and interpretation people have on the piece (the arguments)
  • the takeaways: tactics, principles, and any exercises

For each step: “do I agree, do I disagree, why, what do I think of it”

What I’m deprioritising in the first pass

  • the supporting anecdotes and fillers
  • the intro. skip skip skip. wish there’s a way to quickly skim A/V content. like TED’s interactive / clickable transcript to skip around.

Thoughts on Book Summaries

  • Book summaries help you filter stuff before you read and help you remember after you read.
  • Anecdotes provide context, help us remember the concepts, principles, arguments, conclusions. It’s the extra velcro to stick things to.
  • An overly thin summary is rarely useful to learn from. I almost never learn anything from reading non fiction book summaries. I am just informed at that point. I still need to read the book to internalise the content. Book summaries just help me index the concepts for JIT implementation / drilling down.

  • E.g. the “Concrete” chapter in Made to Stick. I had clear mission / intention when I picked up the book: to learn to speak more vividly, concretely. So I went straight to the chapter about Concreteness, pluck out the key points and principles — the howtos.

    • The anecdotes there (TNC) helped me remember the points and serve as examples to extrapolate and apply the principles to my own contexts / immediate problem at hand.
  • So three levels of answering “should this book be a blog post, should this blog post be a tweet” (can also answer: “how can I read effectively and efficiently”):
    • If you’re looking to teach / explain something / argue / persuade / convince, then you need all the examples and anecdotes you can get.
    • If you’re looking to find and use tools / tactics to solve an immediate problem, then skim, feel free to skip the majority of them, and zoom in on anecdotes that’s closest to your context
    • If you’re looking to get a high level understanding (weakest internalisation) aka indexing for JIT application: reading external book summaries to index the concepts, arguments, tactics, principles is OK enough.
  • It’s a pyramid / funnel. You often got to distilled principles from a bunch of synthesised data points. but sharing the distilled dry versions are often useless in helping other peple “get” that same thing. It’s been abstracted away, all the nuances, the mass, the flesh on the bones.
  • That’s why #lifelessons and #wisdomquotes on the internet are useless. They are useful as a signalling tool once you derived the lessons first hand. They are lagging indicators (“I agree with this quote because I know this is true after experiencing it personally, and now look at me all deep and wise”). The leading indicators for insight and wisdom are personal experience and secondhand experiences e.g. external anecdotes.
  • When learning: from flesh to bones. When teaching: from bones to flesh.

Also published on Medium.


  • 💬 siggibecker
  • 💬 I just read your article and this is exactly the same as my thinking. Nice to see someone else out there that benefits from the same method of using book summaries. 😀

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