Welcome to Books Make Books
This occasional newsletter celebrates the ‘forced meditation’ of reading.
Every time I finish reading a book, I spend half an hour or so noting passages that caught my eye.
I write up the notes and publish them here.
It’s an easy way to deepen my experience of the books I read.
In a wonderful interview with Max Joseph, ‘total baller’ Dr Ruth J Simmons describes reading as ‘forced meditation’.
She goes on to explain:
If you enforce reading, you are likely to enforce time for reflection because it’s hard to read without reflecting … Busyness does not make our lives meaningful; it is the interior life that makes the greatest difference to us in the end.
You can watch the whole interview on Vimeo, beginning around 29:30.
Why do I record the first line of each book?
No single line in a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, gets more attention from the author and publisher than the first line.
There’s good reason for this: the greatest obstacle for a reader when tackling a new book is its first line.
We might not put a book down at the first line, but it certainly determines how comfortable we feel about reading on. A botched first line can be terminal.
On the other hand, if it has done its job well, there is no line in the book over which we pass so quickly.
This is a shame because a good first line frequently foreshadows the author’s thesis in ways that we readers seldom suspect.
By recording the first line of all the books I read, I’m often rewarded with a deeper appreciation of what the author intended me to understand from their writing.
Collecting the first line is also a good reminder to myself to go right back to the beginning, rather than culling my five excerpts from that part of the book that is most fresh in my memory.
Why publish excerpts?
Reflection and publication is an active rather than passive process and helps me to remember more about what I’ve read. This form of learning is known as the generation effect.
It takes me 4-8 hours to read most books, so why not spend an extra half hour to perhaps double my enjoyment of the reading?
Cormac McCarthy once told an interviewer that ‘books are made of books’ and, as a writer, reading is critical to my work. Professionally, I’d be unbelievably stupid not to take half hour to note a few things that I’ve learned from the authors I spend time with.
If I can introduce new readers to great books (or help them avoid stinkers), then so much the better!
A note on copyright
I’m based in the UK, so I publish Books Make Books under the ‘fair dealing’ for criticism, review or quotation exception to copyright. You can read more about the legal position of fair dealing on gov.uk or on the British Library website.
What’s this WONDERFUL thing about?
I rate all the books I read on a five point scale:
You can use this scale to search the archive for WONDERFUL books.
As well as these ratings, my forced meditations are categorised in various other ways, which you can exploit when searching the archive.
The main categories that you will see in the sub-heading of each entry are:
At some point, I might also start to include Long Reads that I find online.
Also in the sub-heading, at least for nonfiction, you will find a number of topics, such as psychology, habits and creativity. You can use these to search for and cross-reference different books.
You can also search by year of publication by typing the year followed by a space and two virgules or strokes, for example: 1908 //.
Or simply browse with serendipity!
How frequently do I post?
I post whenever I finish reading a book. Since 2013, that has meant 30-40 books a year so you should expect postings every couple of weeks.
Unless, of course, I go Ryan Holiday on you all.
Ryan Holiday reads around 250 books a year. Not only does he have a badass system for breaking down whoppers in no time, but he has an equally badass system for taking copious notes and turns those notes into books. Books make books, see?
Ryan Holiday doesn’t read for light entertainment; he reads to become a better human being and he’s got no time at all for people who think that reading isn’t critically important, hard work.
If you’re looking for reading inspiration, I can highly recommend his 2013 article ‘How To Read More — A Lot More’.
This excerpt, for example, really shook my view of how I read:
I don’t check books out from the library and haven’t since I was a child. This isn’t like renting a mindless movie. You should be keeping the books you read for reference and for re-reading. If you are OK giving the books back after two weeks you might want to examine what you are reading.
Libraries are wonderful institutions and I will continue to use them, but I do take Ryan’s point.
Choosing Books over Journalism
‘The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.
Suppose that every morning, when we tore the wrapper off our paper with fevered hands, a transmutation were to take place and we were to find inside it - oh, I don't know, shall we say Pascal's Pensees. ... And then in the gilt and tooled volumes which we open once in ten years ... we should read that the Queen of Hellenes had arrived at Cannes or the Princesses de Leon had given a fancy dress ball.
In that way, we should arrive at the right proportion between information and publicity.’
― Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: Swann's Way (1913)
I'd like to thank Austin Kleon, Max Joseph, Ryan Holiday and Derek Sivers for inspiring Books Make Books in different ways.
Austin Kleon’s excellent book Show Your Work! gave me the Cormac McCarthy quote from where this archive gets its name. Read my other notes on the book here.
Max Joseph is the creator of the wonderful Bookstores documentary.
Ryan Holiday's frankly ridiculous book-reading strategy, although significantly superior to mine, did nevertheless inspire me to take more care over my reading.
Finally, Derek Sivers started it all when I first came across his incredible book notes archive. Go there and get lost. In the nicest possible way.
Thank you for subscribing. I hope you find something here of interest.