In previous posts (like, way previous) I’ve argued that it’s best to understand scholarship as a ‘layered’ activity with a number of different tempos — an idea summarized in the concept of ‘pace layers’ (an idea that ultimately is traced back to Stewart Brand). However, I’ve never really sat down and figured out what those paces are, concretely. The quickest pace I work in is clear: feverish, multi-tabbed browser sessions where you skim across an endless citational ocean on Google-powered wings. The slowest pace I work at is also very clear to me: close reading of a text, pencil in hand, where your focus is so intense that you burn out after an hour or so. Or, these days, close reading of a PDF where I cut and past passages into my notes. But what’s in-between? Here is what I have figured out so far:
Skimming the Citational Ocean: The Internet has made this seductively easy, and the downside of this method is well-known and often-stigmatized: you never actually read anything, you just become aware that it exists. Of course, this is a good thing as long as you then go on to the next step and read a subset of what you’ve discovered. The danger is going into Overwhelm mode where the vistas of scholarship stretch so endlessly before you that your awareness of the interconnectedness of all knowledge turns into acute agoraphobia, you roll into a small ball, and weep silently about all the PDFs you will never have time to read. You should probably stop browsing before that happens.
Book Mark It: Bookmarking something is basically a way to promise myself I can find it again if I ever need to, and a tacit admission to myself that I will never try to find it again in my entire life. Let’s face it: the vast majority of what you stumble across in your research simply has to be ignored. Much of it can be straight-out ignored because it’s not relevant, and the rest must be gently let down, be told that you just want to be friends with it, that you’ll see it around, that it’s not the information, it’s you. Bookmarking is a way of letting yourself off the hook for the coulda shoulda woulda information out there. After all maybe someday you will have a chance to read that five hundred page definitive history of the Balkans.
There are different ways to bookmark things — I use delicious myself. You can keep a reading journal, or even use the bookmark features in your browser. You can have a special database in your favorite database program. It’s all good. Just fire and forget and let your outboard brain do the rest.
Skim and Note: By skim I mean ‘spend at least one minute with the book open’. By ‘note’ I mean: record what you find out about it. If you are judging a book by it’s cover, that’s fine. But it also means that that book should be bookmarked. If you are ‘spending a little time’ with a book, then you must take a note on it. (‘spending a little bit of time’ is also the aphorism you use to describe your engagement with the book. They: “Good lord, you’ve read all of Simmel’s Philosophy of Money” You: “I’ve spent a little bit of time with it”. Say it with an easy smile to convey the impression that you have achieved a subtle and masterful understatement instead of the actual fact, which is that you have pored carefully over the table of contents). Who wrote the book? Why? Who are they arguing against or in favor of? How long is it? How long did you spend with it? For instance, here in their entirety are my notes on The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems
An edited volume in honor of Clifford Geertz, with obvious origins in the Deep Seventies. Includes papers by Boon and J.S. Lansing on Husserlian phenomenology in Bali. Also for me the most interesting is the short kalulu [sic] paper by Buck Schieffelin. Authors are focused on SE Asia and the way that cultural experience is a learning process, experiential, etc. as opposed to more cerebral algebraic undersandings of culture as a code. Also very focused on expanding what it is acceptable to study — the arts, not kinship, and way-out groovy experiences as well, although no obvious reference to drugs in the 1 minute I spent flipping through the book.
A lot of time I just copy the top levels of the table of contents, or read the introduction where they explain what it’s about and how the chapters are broken down. Paying attention to topography is important. The question is really just: what did they say? These potted summaries are designed to 1) make you think about the book so that you internalize it in a vague but important way and 2) come back to your notes to remember what you’ve read. You are going to return to this stuff later at some point for some reason… maybe decades later… but you will return to it, right? If not, then it should be bookmarked.
Read and Annotate: As you grow ever more selective in your filtering, you’ve ignored most of what you’ve found, said adieu to the stuff you’ve bookmarked, and left a quick note to yourself on stuff you’ve skimmed. Now it’s finally time to get to that 10% of material that you actually want to read. Or I should say, read and annotate. Reading something without annotating it — well, it’s basically like not reading it. Like all forms of scholarship, reading and annotating is a way of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs Future You can follow to figure out why you thought this stuff was important back when Past You read it. Again, look for signposting and topography: highlight passages that say “in this article I will argue” or “there are three things to remember” and then highlight the words “first” “second” and “third” when the author gets to each of their points. Write summaries in the margins, to make the topology of the piece explicit. Do not underline every time you come to a passage that makes it clear to you at that moment what the author is thinking. Do not highlight the whole article. The maxim is: highlight only those portions of the text absolutely necessary to understand it’s gist. In other words, highlight the minimum necessary for future you to return to the piece and remember it. Don’t drown Future You in tons of annotations, or leave Future You paging in blank incomprehension over tons of unhighlighted pages. Love Future You, care for Future You, nurture Future You with a steady diet of relevant passages.
It is also at this point that you should actually store a copy of the text locally. Bookmarked and skimmed notes are basically about data that lives somewhere else. Read and annotated materials need to be kept on-hand since you have not taken the time to pull full citeable notes from them. You probably also want to store the metadata (i.e. the full citation information) about them somewhere. Some people use programs to store PDFs and metadata in the same place, some people don’t — it’s up to you. The important point is that to own the literature you have to own the literature.
Reading and Note: This is the most intense form of scrutiny you give a text — a close reading to extract from it what you want from it. It’s similar to R&A except that it is more like being a vampire. you are sucking the text dry and using its precious ichor to keep your unholy academic career alive. Funders are attracted by your mysterious and yet dangerous allure. This means doing the same thing as R&A except 1) doing it more carefully and 2) instead of annotating passages, copying them into your personal database of notes. Because it takes more effort to copy and paste (or even — good lord! — copy by hand) quotes you are even more selective in boiling down their essence. In the end you have a (digital) notebook full of quotations, summaries, and your own comments about the reading.
This means that you can dispose of the bodies once they are drained: you only have to refer to your notebook in the future to get the gist of the argument or pull a quote that supports your case. This is really discarding the corpse, as opposed to R&A, which is more like keeping your PDFs hypnotized and locked in some strange pod or suspended animation unit you are ready to feast. This is the kind of research you do in the library or archives (where The Council Of The Five won’t let you check out the humans and take them home) and when you are serious about a book that you don’t want or need to pull it off your shelf. You just can’t compose texts with five hundred books and PDFs open and piled up to your ears, but you can easily do so if all your notes are in a single place. Now the criterion for whether you need to own texts is whether you will likely return to them for another purpose at another time. It’s a handy criteria to have the next time you are trying to decide between Amazon or ILL.
In conclusion, here are a few key points to make:
1. The quicker the pace the less focus is required to do it: You may only be able to read really really difficult material really really closely for, like, three or four hours a day. But there is never a time when you’re so tired that you can’t say to youself: “Why don’t I just read the table of contents for every issue of Dialectical Anthropology eve published?” Matching pace to focus increases productivity. Surf in the evening to set yourself up with something to read carefully in the morning when you mana pool is replenished.
2. Chose a pace and stick with it: If you are annotating, annotate. If you are bookmarking, bookmark. Use your concrete action on the text in order to gauge your genuine level of interest in it, and vice versa (and also, btw, how much focus you’ve got in you). When you fall between the cracks, you are not working efficiently.
4. Use pacing to define your intellectual world. You are interested in a lot of stuff, but what do you need to focus on right now? What is your core competency and what is the stuff you are just vaguely interested in? If you had to chunk your readings into three themes, what would they be? Using choice of pacings to create a ‘literature map’ of your headspace greatly simplifies figuring out what in fact is happening to you, mentally, at this point in your life.
5. Balance balance balance. Hyperactivity and endless browsing is a sign of trouble. Never peeking out from behind your copy of A Thousand Plateaus is not a good sign either. A healthy academic diet involves managing these extremes, and attending to pace layering can help you explicitly recognize what adjustments you need to make to your inputs.
And that’s it! At least for now. Does this jive with how other people take notes or do research?