Update: the book club is now closed

Books are the worst.

Seriously. Think about it.

Most books have one good idea wrapped in layers and layers of fluff. Like one of those giant gift boxes you keep opening with smaller and smaller boxes inside, only to find a keychain.

Books are static. By the time they hit store shelves, they’re already out of date. If by some miracle the book ever gets updated, you have to buy it again.

Books trap information. Even when you do all the work of finding the few morsels of insight, there’s a lot of friction to getting it out.

Books are wasteful. They traditionally had to be a certain size to justify the costs of publishing, printing, shipping, and retailing. We continue printing them at the standard length, which is a terrible waste of paper, ink, and energy. Even when it’s an ebook, conforming to this standard size wastes the time and attention of both the people producing them and reading them.

I love ideas, but I hate books. I can no longer justify the time to read books in the vague hope I’ll find something valuable, AND remember it for future use.

What if there was a way to get the ideas from books, without having to read them?

We could all read books, summarize them, and share the summaries. But that’s been done forever, and doesn’t really work. Reading someone else’s notes, no matter how carefully written, doesn’t give you enough context to understand why the main points matter.

This is where my Progressive Summarization technique comes in. It is a method of distilling the key points in a text by surfacing the most important words, phrases, and sentences in a series of successive summaries. By preserving the surrounding context around each highlighted phrase, it allows readers to understand why that point is so important.

Here’s an example

Read the 4-part series to get the full picture.

We need to work together. To make reading social. To embed it in our conversations and relationships and communities.

Book clubs provide some accountability and interaction around the ideas in a book, but don’t resolve the fundamental problem — everyone is still reading the same book. Book clubs don’t leverage our most scarce resource: our time and attention. They don’t take advantage of technology to improve our learning and retention.

Here’s what I’m proposing for the first inaugural Praxis Anti-Book Club:

  1. Every Praxis member who wants to participate signs up to read a book on a designated topic (the first one will be extended cognition and note-taking, to help me prepare for writing the Building a Second Brain book)
  2. You read the Progressive Summarization series (Part I, II, III, IV) to understand best practices and see examples of well-summarized notes
  3. You agree to read your assigned book, highlight the best parts (either in a paper book or an ebook), and then bring it to Layer 4 of summarization (3 rounds of highlighting plus summarizing the book in your own words)
  4. I will compile all the summaries into an Evernote shared notebook and give everyone who contributed access to it (please use Evernote for this experiment just to keep things simple)
  5. I will host a kickoff for the book club on the next Praxis Town Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 16 at 9am Pacific time. I’ll answer any questions and show you a recommended workflow (recording and minutes will be available afterward for those that can’t attend)
  6. You’ll have 3 weeks to read and summarize your book, and we’ll do a debrief on Tuesday, Feb. 6 at 9am Pacific time. I will share everything I’ve learned.
  7. If successful, we’ll make adjustments and do it again, possibly making it open to the public, voting on a designated topic, or making the summarization process more in-depth

Progressive Summarization is not a replacement for reading. I’ve had people share notebooks full of hundreds of neatly summarized books with me, but I find that without the full context it’s hardly ever worth my time to read them.

But attention scarcity has reached an inflection point, and I think traditional reading is also no longer tenable. Dedicating at least 6–8 hours upfront to a book without knowing whether or how it will apply to your current challenges makes no sense. If you’re not strategic about how you select and consume information, what makes you think you’ll suddenly be strategic in putting it to use?

There’s another way: to read the book yourself, but only right at the moment you need the information it provides. To read it “just-in-time,” when you have a real problem or project to apply it to. Applying it immediately will help you remember it far better than notes ever could.

What we are creating is a database of contextual clues to help each other make the pivotal decision of whether a given book is appropriate for our current situation. Your job is to surface semantic triggers, highlight main points, and direct others’ attention to the most substantive parts. You will provide value by giving them the confidence to invest the time in reading the book, OR by saving them the time they would have spent reading a book that isn’t right for them.

I’ll collect email addresses until the kickoff on Tuesday, Jan. 16 at 9am Pacific, provide a spreadsheet with books to choose from at that time, and you’ll have three weeks to complete your summarization.

Send me any ideas you have on how to make the experiment more successful: [email protected]. I’m also looking for someone to help manage this experiment. Email me if you’re interested.

Happy reading!

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