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Habits & Routines

Marginalia, the Anti-Library, and Other Ways to Master the Lost Art of Reading

Reading (and remembering what you've read) is one of the best investments you can make for your career.


Warren Buffett is undoubtedly considered one of the greatest investors of all times. His empire, Berkshire Hathaway, is worth $355 billion, an increase of 1,826,163 percent since 1964 when Buffett took over. He owns (or owns big chunks) of some of the biggest brands in the world including GEICO, Dairy Queen, NetJets, half of Heinz, and significant holdings in companies such as American Express, IBM, and Wells Fargo.

But Buffett’s very best investment—responsible for literally billions of dollars in profits over the years—was very cheap. Because it was a book. That’s right, a book.

In his 2013 letter to shareholders [pdf link], Buffett explained that a single book, The Intelligent Investor, written by his mentor Benjamin Graham was, “of all the investments I ever made…[it] was the best.” Buffett even named one of his sons after him.

In my own life I can say I had similar books. The magnitude was not the same, but in relative terms the impact was still there. Each one of these was for me, what the economist Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book.” They shook my entire world and then, as it happened, were responsible for a great deal of success in my career, relationships, and my happiness.

The first came when I was in college in the mid-aughts and I was invited to a small, private summit of college journalists that Dr. Drew, then the host of Loveline, was hosting. After it ended, he was standing in the corner and I cautiously made my way over and decided to ask what books he would recommend a young man like myself. The books he turned me on to were those written by the stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. I’d been going through a rough times and it was exactly what I needed. My life has not been the same since. This was a special event in my life but whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.

Whatever problem you’re struggling with is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.

People have been moving West, leaving school, investing their savings, getting dumped or filing for divorce, starting businesses, quitting their jobs, fighting, and dying for thousands of years. This is all written down, often in the first person. Read it. Maybe you are an entrepreneur running your own business and looking for an innovative marketing approach. Maybe you want to understand power and strategy. Or you simply want to be a better person. Trust me, the answer is there in books. 

So That’s Why We Read, but How?

No one says: How do you have time to eat? How do you have time to sleep or have sex? You make time. It’s the stuff of life.

Step one is adding books to that list. The key to reading lots of book begins with no longer thinking of it as some extra activity that you do. It’s not a pastime, it’s a priority. As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

Not to say you have to take it as far as Erasmus, who lived a bit of a monkish existence. Personally, books are probably my single largest expense each year—behind housing and food. Since dropping out of college, I’ve averaged well over $1,000 a year in books (even more in 2013 when I bought basically my entire Amazon wishlist for tax purposes). In a given year I purchase at least 100, but closer to 250, books. 

While some might bristle at such an expense, it’s become quite natural—I budget for it like any other necessity. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default. Like breathing. Like drinking.

Step two is to turn reading into a daily and regular routine. Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open. You also need to constantly be discovering new books. As a simple rule of thumb, always ask the smart people you meet for book recommendations, as I did with Dr. Drew (and if you need more recommendations, I am your man). Don’t borrow books—build your library instead and take pride in that. It will be an investment that pays off in the long run. If you see anything that remotely interests you, just buy it. If you don’t get to read it immediately and it piles up, that’s ok. It’s part of building your “anti-library,” or the stack of unread books that will humble you and remind you just how much there is still to learn.

A small sampling of my notecards, taken from books as I read them.

A small sampling of my notecards, taken from books as I read them.

But don’t just passively read. Make reading an active process. Make notes and comments to yourself as you read (this is called marginalia). If you see an anecdote or quote you like, transfer it to a commonplace book and use a system to organize and store all of it. For my last book, The Obstacle Is the Way, the actual writing of the book took only a few months, because the years of reading and research that went into were already there, systematized and ready to use, all thanks to my notecards and common place book.

Marginalia

Marginalia in action.

Even if you are not a writer, having stories and quotes ready at hand will always come in useful, whether it is in conversations, presentations, memos, pitches, etc. Always strive to return back to the purpose of it. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, we need to read so that “words become works.” I love reading more than almost anything, but even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it, or made connections.

My commonplace book and a collection of notecards.

My commonplace book and a collection of notecards.

Step three, be ruthless about acquiring knowledge through books. If you see anything that remotely intrigues you–just get it. Quit books that don’t hold your interest or deliver the goods. Swarm onto topics that do, even if there is no immediate relevancy to what you’re doing. After all, creativity comes from combining old ideas into something new. Reading a variety of topics gives you more ammo than your competition.

If something enthralls you and you want to deeply understand it, go at it. You don’t have to slowly trudge along through a book. Think of someone like Frederick Douglass, who brought himself up out of slavery by sneaking out and teaching himself to read, or Richard Wright who forged notes from his white boss so he could check out books from the library. Books weren’t some idle pursuit or pastime for these great individuals, they were survival itself.     

So Get Started!

Of course, many of the benefits of reading are intrinsic and personal. They allow us to relax, they teach us empathy, and provide quiet time in a noisy world. At the same time, a look at any random sampling of successful people finds a common trait: a love of books and an education that was primarily self-driven.

Many of these people lived thousands of years ago, when reading was considerably more difficult. They didn’t have mandatory schooling, they didn’t have Amazon or magical Kindles. Lincoln, for instance, often took notes on the books he read on pieces of wood he found. We live in a time where books from every age (many that were previously lost to history) are not only available, but cheap or even entirely free. 

It’s up to us to take advantage of these circumstances. The only thing stopping us, is us.

Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Ego Is The Enemy and three other books. His monthly reading recommendations which go out to 50,000+ subscribers are found here.

Comments (16)
  • Devon

    Oh, not this “don’t borrow books” tripe AGAIN. this attitude is short-sighted, impractical, and privileged. To demonize the public library means you only think people who should make reading a priority are those who can afford it. The public library is a great equalizer—a resource for all, no matter your income, job, or social status.

    Nothing in this article requires buying every book you want to read. In fact, borrowing books works extremely well for these concepts. I have read too many books I only want to read once. There’s no point in owning it. But I still read, I still took notes in my commonplace, and I moved on, able to keep my lessons learned while not wasting the money I would have spent buying it and the wasted shelf space used up by a book I’ll never crack open again.

    I don’t make a lot of money. I work at a public library. So, I use my resources and I BORROW BORROW BORROW. I plow through books. I could NOT do this if buying each book were a requirement. I do buy a lot of books, but most I get from Half-Price Books or on an eBook sale. Many books I wish to read cannot be found here. So, I borrow. Would you have me not read them at all?

    Reading is about accumulated knowledge, not how much book shelf space one has in his/her house. And the goal of public libraries is to make that available to as many people as possible. What kind of person shames that?

    • Ryan Holiday

      I imagine Warren Buffet’s life would have been a little different if he’d checked out Ben Graham’s book from the library instead of buying it. I love libraries. I’ve written three out of my four books inside of one. I also buy most of my books used as you say. It sounds like you are looking for conflict where there isn’t any.

      • lori

        Then why did you state: “Don’t borrow books—build your library instead and take pride in that.”

        When you could have said, “There are some books you will want to add to a permanent collection, there are many more that you can borrow from the library where they can be shared with your community.

      • Tim

        Ryan, great article. It’s obvious that you struck a nerve or two about borrowing versus buying. I think we all know that you can purchase used books pretty cheaply. Libraries are great and sharing books is great; however, I cannot agree more that some books should be owned! The books that change and alter our existence are important to have around us, and ownership allows for marginalia–the heart of the article’s message. AND have those notes and books in our homes and offices for reference. I hate when I’m reading a book and have forgotten a pen and paper to make notes (smart phones come in handy!). They are required to build and remember that wealth of knowledge from what we’ve read. (Epictetus helped me through some tough times as well!)

  • http://hasimahguesthouse.weebly.com/ Hasimah GuestHouse

    hmmm?

  • Oludeye Olatunde

    Hello, great article. I have saved this to my pocket list.

    You said in the article though that “if you need more recommendations, I am your man”, so I’m about to take you up on that.

    What I’ve found is, there are not a lot of great recommendations on the internet, since any Tom, Dick and Harry can put up a ‘Top ten best books ever!’ list. I think your book recommendations would be worth it, though.

    So, what are your top ten books, period. The ones that have changed your life and shaped your thinking. You can make them more than 10 if there are some that just have to be included.

    Also, what books would you recommend someone who is at a phase where he is:
    – trying to decipher the purpose of life and his own purpose/role in it
    – the best career path to take
    – searching for innovative business ideas

    In addition to this, please feel free to point me in the direction of resources where I can, for myself, find book recommendations for different phases of life.

    Between, your article has spurred me up to start buying books. Thanks for it.

    Awaiting your response.

    • JB.

      I too would like to see your response to the above comment. Loved your article. After reading, just wanted to say “Woo, hoo!” It is like… license to read! Definitely an addiction for me as well. I am an elementary school, special education teacher. I just wrote on a student’s book that she was lending me, “Have to return this to you, no time to read.” Haven’t actually given the book back though yet. I am always concerned that I will get swept away reading and not do my job. Also, was contemplating not renewing my long-standing subscription to favorite magazine… because I never read it! Nor the other favorite magazines that I get. You suggested getting it into your life, not sure how to do that yet. I have the anti-library. I like the positive spin on this, look at the wealth of knowledge you haven’t read yet… hence making you humble. I wish that worked for me more often. To me it just makes me more frustrated. Like the critical comment below, and I wonder if your term “anti-library” literally means “anti-using-the-library” or just “the library you haven’t accessed yet”. Maybe I also don’t know this well-known term! Thanks so much, and very inspiring!

    • Ryan Holiday

      Hi Oludeye–I have a list on my site of ‘Books to Base Your Life On’-start there. Each great book should lead you to another. That’s how I started my journey.

  • http://olegs.be/ Oleg

    Never stop reading/learning.

  • Erika D

    Great article, I love the images of your note cards. I also read your book (The Obstacle is the way) It is a great read!

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  • http://blog.theadamthomas.com Adam Thomas

    The other benefit of having your own library is the ability to give that book to someone else to help build their knowledge. I run my own library out of my apartment. People who come by get books. I only ask them to give me what notes they got from the experience when they return it, often to me giving them another book.

    Cheap way for me to expand my knowledge base and the knowledge base of those around me.

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