Working with Ideas

Everyone mines every book for the things that are useful to him, especially [books that are] rich and complex.” (Italo Calvino, 1923-1985)

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…” (Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862)

Both of the quotes above are basically talking about the same thing. Everything that we read and everything we experience is valuable material for our minds. You may have heard pundits say in recent years the America has shifted from being primarily about making things and has become an information economy. More Americans than ever before have become “knowledge workers”. What we’re talking about here, thinking about texts or experiences and turning them into insights, definitely qualifies as knowledge work.

Let’s examine these quotes a bit more closely. Calvino uses the metaphor of mining, suggesting that we dig beneath the surface of things, to find the gems or maybe the iron ore that will become steel girders supporting our structures of interpretation. And Thoreau — can you believe he only lived to be 45? He wanted to suck the marrow out of life, like a hunter-gatherer intent on getting all the nutrition out of his prey. Or like a modern-day chef, who roasts and breaks large bones and then boils them for stock because that’s where the flavor is.

These are useful metaphors. We can imagine mining the information we encounter, following veins and seams underground, then smelting and refining the ore into useful metals. Occasionally we might come across gems that are nearly perfect when we discover them, perhaps needing only a bit of cutting and setting to reveal their value. But mostly the work involves patience and effort, as we go through the steps of finding, collecting, refining, and concentrating information from a raw material into exactly what we need for our structure. Or, we can picture ourselves collecting bones, breaking and roasting them, and then boiling them for hours or days in a stock pot to release the nutritious and tasty marrow.

In both metaphors, the process takes time and work. This is also accurate. You’ve no doubt heard the saying attributed to Thomas Edison, that “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Whether or not he was correct about the proportion, Edison’s point was a good one. People sometimes imagine that working with ideas is essentially different from other types of work; that knowledge workers are a special elite group (or believe themselves to be). In fact, working with ideas is just like any other type of work. It can be very exciting at times! It can also sometimes be very routine and repetitive. But much of the value and most of the inspiration (whether it’s 1% or 10% or more) comes directly from the less exciting, more work-like part.

When you’re working with ideas, the information you are processing is just a basic raw material. You apply techniques and use tools to turn this raw material into something useful and valuable to you. The techniques and tools we’re going to discuss in this first section on note-taking are focused on texts, but they can be applied to ideas that come to you in discussion, listening to lectures, experiment, or life experience.

The first step in creating new knowledge and reporting on it, is finding sources and learning from texts. There are several different ways to approach a text, depending on what you are hoping to get from it. First, you might find yourself assigned to read something you know nothing about. Second, you might choose to read a text because it has been recommended or cited by someone else. Third, you might be reading with a specific question in mind. We will discuss the details of these reading process as we continue this section. For now, a few observations:

  • The way you are going to engage with a text depends on what you are hoping to learn from it. If you are looking for a particular piece of data to answer a specific question, then you are probably going to read much more quickly and with that goal in mind. This is what Calvino was saying at the beginning, about everyone mining the book for what’s useful to them. If it’s a large text, you may be searching for a needle in a haystack. You won’t be paying much attention to each individual stalk of straw, since you’ll be focused on finding your needle.
  • This type of hyper-focus is certainly a lot different from the type of openness to the author’s intentions that you might want to try to practice, if you’re reading a novel for a literature class. Although it is probably impossible for readers to make themselves into completely “blank slates”, bringing no expectations or preconceptions to a text, there are certainly some times when it is useful to try to be as open to surprise as possible and let an author tell their story or make their argument or offer their interpretation without prejudgment.
  • We are not implying here that this openness is something you will do more in a literature class and focus in a social science class. There will be times in both disciplines when it will be appropriate to approach a text with a specific question in mind, and others when a better strategy will be to let the text surprise you.

We read different texts for different reasons, regardless of the subject. It’s probably useful to know, however, that when we are hyper-focused and looking for that needle, we may be missing something else that might be valuable in the haystack. That’s not necessarily a problem — we’re usually not burning the haystack after we find the needle. We can always return to see what else the author who provided us with that useful idea (the needle) might have had to say about other topics. Some of them might be adjacent to the needle topic, others may take us in entirely different directions.

This is one of the cool things about engaging with other people’s ideas: often their interests are just a little different from yours, and can take you in directions you may not have anticipated. We’ll explore this idea more as we dig into some of the techniques and tools of note-taking in the rest of this section.

Also available as a video:

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