And sometimes panic sets in

Inspired by a reader’s question to me, I thought I’d ask our followers on Facebook and Twitter for an answer to the question: What books would you recommend someone read to improve their general knowledge of the world.

I must say the number and quality of the responses overwhelmed me. The box Amazon just delivered reminds me that I ordered 9 books off this list.

~ Farnam Street from,

I know there are too many books—old books, new books, red books, blue books … A friend of mine just published a book, Before You Say Anything, and Jiminy Cricket I’d love to read it— I hovered on the add-to-cart button. But I paused, managing to trigger my habit-change “wedge” of repeating: “simplfiy. simplify. simplify.” I digress.

I skimmed that list of books from Farnam Street and felt I should probably read every one of them. Instead—simplify. simplify. simplify.—I noted I’ve read several, have several more already in my possession, and several others on the wishlist. With a life-is-short shrug, I’m passing it along to you and moving on with my morning.


Mastery, purpose, and autonomy

A highly influential book for me in designing Automattic was Daniel Pink’s Drive, where he eloquently introduces the three things that really matter in motivating people: mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Mastery is the urge to get better skills. Purpose is the desire to do something that has meaning, that’s bigger than yourself. These first two principles physically co-located companies can be great at. But the third, autonomy, is where even the best in-office company can never match a Level 4 or above distributed company.

~ Matt Mullenweg from,

I’ve read and listened to a bunch of stuff from Mullenweg and he’s consistently someone with his head on straight and his priorities—particularly those related to the many people working for his company—in order. If you just went, “Matt who?” definitely read that little post, and then, perhaps, dip into his podcast, Distributed. (Maybe try the episode, Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg on building a fully distributed company, to get a good taste.)

Also, yes, more autonomy for everyone.


Just one good idea

I believe the standard how-to book contains too much new stuff for a human brain to take on board once, or at least it does for my brain. Implementing a single habit – flossing before bed, for example – is something most people can do if they’re really focusing on it, but even that is hard. Converting your workday into the full-bore Pomodoro system, or (God help you) the GTD system, represents a dozen or more habits that all have to come online more or less at the same time.

~ David Cain from,

This is an unusual post from Cain. It is very much nuts-and-bolts material—ending in a pitch for a book of his own—rather than his usual philosophical pontifications. To his observation quoted above I’d like to add the following: If I am able to find just one good idea in a book which I can implement, then I get very excited.

For example, one can read many books and come away with new ideas. (Man’s Search for Meaning, or Leaves of Grass, spring to mind as examples.) But the vast majority of books do not contain actionable things that can be implemented to make a difference in your life. An idea like, “be the change you want to see in the world,” is sublime. But how—be specific in your thinking here—do I do that? There are many examples: “Practice gratitude.” How, exactly? And compare that to the same idea, in actionable form: “Begin each day by writing down three things for which you are grateful.”

I’m not trying to denigrate great ideas. I’m trying to explain my sheer delight when I do find a great idea which is readily attemptable. Many of those actionable ideas still fall by the wayside, but a few of them have really stuck and served me well.


If it’s good enough for Faraday

In part, Faraday credits his own “inventing the method of invention” to reading Watts’s books, particularly The Improvement of the Mind — a self improvement guide a few centuries before the internet. Watts recommended keeping a commonplace book to record facts, and Faraday did. Watts recommended he be guided by observed facts, and Faraday was. Watts recommended finding a great teacher, and Faraday starting attending lectures.

~ Farnam Street from,

Yes, that Michael Faraday. And book ordered.

I’m a vigorous agreer with Will Smith’s comments about reading, (and I believe him regarding running but my body is not yet on board.) I hope that reading this book is a wonderful exercise in, “I already knew that. And that. And also that.” However, my current traipsing through, A College Manual of Rhetoric has proven to be a font of—apparently—long forgotten by most everyone, gems. As such, I’m willing to bet my hoped-for reading of, The Improvement of the Mind will turn out similarly.


The hive mind

Few working scientists can give a ground-up explanation of the phenomenon they study; they rely on information and techniques borrowed from other scientists. Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

~ Atul Gawande from,

I can’t add to that. I only wanted to be sure that others see it too.

Meanwhile, I never bothered to read Gawande’s hit book, The Checklist Manifesto. (To be candid, bordering on obnoxious: Time is limited, and I don’t need to seek more information about processes. I’ve got that sorted.) But it has hovered in my awareness none the less. Recently, two unrelated sources gave over-the-top praise for Gawande’s newer book, Being Mortal. On those recommendations alone it’s now in my reading queue. I’ve cracked it open, and done the preliminary reading… Have you read it? Do you have any thoughts on it?


Who. What. When.

An embarrassment of riches swamps me. I have so arranged things that everywhere I turn I find inspiring ideas, growth-catalyzing goals, and outlandish opportunities.

This morning I tenderly cracked open a new-to-me book, (Community: The Structure of Belonging by P Block, 2nd ed., 2018,) and inserted a bright blue, ribbon bookmark. I turned past the first page, then past the second page, and read the dedication:

To Maggie — In appreciation for your commitment, intelligence, love, and integrity that make what I do possible. You are a placeholder for all who give their talents and love in support of others. Your question “Who will do what by when?” changes the world.

~ Peter Block, ibid.

I have never had that particular formulation in mind. But I’ve had that sentiment as a driving force for decades. Thank you “Maggie” and Peter Block for making something so long fuzzy for me, perfectly clear.

Yes, indeed! Who will do what by when?


Thank you, Miss Merrill

Last weekend, while helping friends pack-house, I found this book:

Wait! Don’t do the math on a book from 1907, and a college student taking Rhetoric in 1924. :)

Instead of packing it, I borrowed the book wondering if this James Sears Baldwin might just be the Baldwin. This is a dry book. But it’s also teaching me a ton about writing. The author hasn’t cracked even the slightest smile in the first 37 pages of this 400+ page tome. But the Baldwin quote I’d love to find within, might just be the sort of pithy thing this author would drop near the end.

Yes, I am willing to read a 400+ page tome on the off chance that I find the quote and get the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of finding an original attribution for a well-known quote. I digress.

By page 30, I had seen a whole bunch these little diagonal marks, but hadn’t really figured out what she was trying to imply.

Then it hit me. Quotes! It’s a diagonal line with a quote on the diagonal line. She’s delineating quotations. I’m guessing that she must have written a paper—who’d expect that in a Rhetoric class, right?—and I bet she came back through and marked the quotation sections. At the same instant that I figured it out, my up-to-then habit of drawing a full line across the page, (often a long line, then up or down a line, and then finish going across, to “cut” in the middle of a line,) seemed dumb.

Thank you Miss Merrill. This looks just way cooler:


Deep dive into books

Today I thought I’d share a thorough explanation of what I do “to” a book these days. This process—which to be honest I don’t follow for every book I read—is the result of combining a few different ideas:

  • I love the physicality of books. The typography, the paper, writing in them, desultory bookmarks, (I add my own ribbon bookmarks,) and numerous sticky-notes poking out the side.
  • I love the peaceful, inertness of books. They literally sit there and do nothing. There are no alerts, and no interaction, (from anyone beyond the author’s original magic spell.)
  • I’ve always wanted to retain more of the knowledge from a book once I’ve read it.
  • I’ve wanted to be free of my self-imposed rule of reading every page.
  • These days I have a slipbox, and I want it to grow.
  • I love to collect quotes.
  • I’ve always wanted a set of crib notes, summary, or something that I could lay hand on after reading a book.


Fortunately, books arrive slowly. It took practice, but I learned to do all of the following in a minute or two.

If it’s a new book, I take a few moments to prepare the spine. (Please tell me you know how to do that.) I affix a small, white, circular label on the spine, and I slap a sticky-note on the first face opposite the cover.

I skip over to and find the book in “Your Books”—my books, that is. Most arriving books are coming in after already being in my “wishlist” collection; They get moved to the “library” collection. Otherwise they get searched for and added to my collection. Books get tagged as “physical,” (as opposed to those tagged “PDF,” “iBooks”, or “Kindle,” because, yeup, I track those too.) I see what MDS number Library Thing says the librarians of the world have chosen.

On the sticky-note, I write “LT”, (for “this book is entered into Library Thing,) and the MDS number. I write the main, three-digit part of the MDS number on the label on the spine.

Finally, I skip over to and remove it from my Wishlist over there to ensure I don’t forget about it. (Lest I accidentally “spend” my Book Mooch points requesting a book I now have.) If this is a book that someone sent me because of Book Mooch, I hit the “Received!” button instead.

This book is now “ours.” And some amazing things are now possible just by having spent a couple minutes on each book as it arrives. (Please ignore the entire week I spent bootstrapping ~500 books when I started doing all this. :)

  • Physical bookstores are fun again! What books are on my wishlist? (500+ at the moment) …okay, what wishlist books are tagged, “priority”? (about 250 — yes I have a problem.) Picking up a book… “this looks interesting…” Do I already have it in the house, maybe now is the time to buy it? Did I once have it, and it’s no longer in our collection, (part of my collections in Library Thing is “had but gone now”)?
  • Long-term storage of books doesn’t mean they are lost. A big portion of the books in our house are here because we want to keep them. They sit for years untouched. Those are shelved by MDS number. Ask me for a book, and I can walk directly to it; It’s either laying about somewhere and top of mind, or it’s shelved where it can be found immediately.
  • This is morbid, but if the house burned down I could decide what books to replace.

Books are for reading

Well, technically, one can also build a thing called an anti-library. But eventually, hopefully, or at least this is what I keep telling myself: I start reading the book.

I do tend to read the entire book. But generally I read the table of contents first to see what I’m getting into. If I think the book is going to be a really deep read—something I want to read more than once, refer to, and really ingest—I probably read the Afterword first. The Afterword was written dead-last, after the book was done and the author is a different person at that point. Then maybe the Foreword, or some books have a Summary, or a Preface, whatever.

I’ve no qualms about skipping parts. For example, in books like Trust Yourself by M Wilding I skipped all the anecdotes and skipped all the workbook/exercises stuff. I ended up reading only about one-third of all of the pages. (Still, a good book by the way.)

As I’m reading, if anything quotable jumps out, I’ll capture that on the spot. This leads to me making some marks, allocating a slipbox slip address, and I’ll leave a small post-it sticking out the side. I’ve never met a book worth reading that didn’t have at least one quotable bit awaiting me within.


As soon as the first slip gets created from the book, that slip needs to refer to the book. That means the book itself needs to be in the slipbox. Apparently, I always wanted to be a librarian.

And now I can leave a “(2tu1)” reference on the quote’s slip.

So that’s a bit of detour, but it really only takes me about a minute. You’ll notice—first photo at top—that the sticky-note for this example book has a slipbox reference, “(2tu1)”—the parens mean “this is a reference”. I didn’t put that on the sticky-note when the book arrived. That was added when I put the book into the slipbox by creating slip “2tu1”.

But mostly, I’m just reading the book.

Identify summarizing bits

One day, I’m finished reading.

I find that even if it took me months to finish, the book’s contents remain pretty fresh in my mind. I flip through the book cover-to-cover, just skimming and noticing what I recall from reading. When I see a good, representative bit, I simply stick in a blank card at those spots. This lets me gauge how many slips my “summary” will be; Two is too few, and 20 might be too many.

Each spot has some key point that I want to include in my summary. I don’t write anything at this point. The goal is just to stick the cards into all the places that I want to include in my summary.

(I once tried using a printed template whose layout facilitated taking brief notes and had pre-printed page numbers. Folded, it doubled as a bookmark so I could build some notes as I read. When an idea leapt out, I’d find the page number on the sheet and jot a note. It was a neat idea, but didn’t work out for me.)


Finally, I go through all the spots I’ve identified and I do a little underlining. I jot the basics of the idea on a slip and address it. So for this example book, whose slip is addressed “2tu1”, this first of the summary slips goes “below” as “2tu1a.” Next summary slip would be, “2tu1b”, “2tu1c” etc.


Anything noteworthy since

One of my recent acquisitions is this door-stop of a volume, Forty Thousand Quotations Prose and Poetical, published in 1940. Several thoughts spring to mind at this point:

Obviously, this book is 80 years old. Wait, no, that was not obvious to me. I was thinking, “1940… Wow, that’s like 60 years ago,” followed not as quickly as it should have been by, “…no wait, that’s 80 years ago.” So the first thought I’ll share here is that the years pile on like onion-skin pages. Year after year after year after year and before you realize it: Door stop. (Both you have a door stop, and you are a door stop.)

Upon arrival I immediately flipped through it to see what I’d gotten for my $14-plus-shipping. The book says, “prose and poetical,” but I don’t know diddly-squat about this Douglas fellow. There could be forty thousand stinkers better left forgotten. My verdict: The density is low. Perhaps 1 in 4 strike me as even worthy of inclusion in the book. Still, ten thousand quotations prose and poetical are worth 2/10 of one cent each, (in my book.)

It’s said—I’ve heard it said, I’ve said it myself now many times—that our favorite quotations say more about ourselves than of those we’ve quoted.

Is this book a snapshot of 1930’s America? Let this sink in: There’s not a single quote from anyone related in any way to World War II. There isn’t a single modern tech genius in here either. But wait! It was printed in 1940, yes. However the copyrights are 1904, 1914 and 1917. This book is a time machine come to me across more than a century.

I generally give books the page 88 test. That’s laughably near the front of a book which has— (Wait, wat?! This book has exactly 2,000 numbered pages! That’s another tangent I’m not following. Ahem.) Page 88 is laughably near the front of a 2,000 page book. As I carefully flipped towards 88, I was briefly anxious when I thought the entries under “anxiety” might run to page 88, but fortunately, no. The two columns of page 88 cover the tail end of, Apothegm (“a short, pithy and instructive saying or formulation,” honestly, I had to look that up,) then Apparel, and then Apparitions runs onward to page 89.

The first full entry on page 88 is:

A few words worthy to be remembered suffice to give an idea of a great mind. There are single thoughts that contain the essence of a whole volume, single sentences that have the beauties of a large work, a simplicity so finished and so perfect that it equals in merit and in excellence a large and glorious composition.

~ Joubert



The last lecture

The Last Lecture is a summary of all Pausch had learned and all he wanted to pass along to his children. The lecture, entitled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” wasn’t about dying rather just the opposite. It was about dreams, moments and overcoming obstacles because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think.”

~ Farnam Street from,

Perhaps you’ve already heard of this book? I had not. Tidy little article from Farnam Street makes me want to run—not walk—out and buy this book.

On the other hand: I really have a problem with books. There’s already a few hundred in the anti-library. My wishlist of books contains 410— err, correction, 411 books.

This is such a delightful problem, yes?