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

March 23, 2016

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 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.

This post appeared originally on 99U.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

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

  1. I read a book like that. It is called, “the obstacle is the way”. Thanks for all you do l, Ryan. Great info here once again.

  2. Reading is indeed a “lost art,” or at least one that was lost to me, but that I have now rediscovered late in life. As a 40-something executive, I have always enjoyed reading but I have mostly consumed short-form content: magazine articles, trade journals, blog posts, online discussion forums, etc., punctuated by the occasional fiction or non-fiction book. Months would elapse between finishing one book and starting another. After another such absence from books, I read a couple of books last summer and resolved to continue the habit. I committed to reading every day and sustaining a pace of a book every 10 days or so. I began reading about reading (enjoying many of Ryan’s posts on the topic) and began to take the effort increasingly seriously, including the marginalia and cataloging that Ryan recommends (mostly digitally via the Kindle but many physical books as well). My Amazon Wish List has grown to around 170 books, and that list is appended by the list of unread books in my Antilibrary. I don’t know how I will ever work my way through a list that gets books added to it at a faster rate than they are checked off as “read,” but the point, of course, is not to complete the list but just to read and learn as much as I can. I regret finding this passion this late in life, and lament how much more I could have read and learned if I had only started earlier. But as the old saying goes, better late than never, or, more meaningfully, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.

  3. Love this! What is your process for cataloging the info as it stands out to you? As someone who loves reading, that has been my primary failure. I’ve heard Evernote come up a good bit but without any context for how it fits into the overall process.

  4. Little fish in the Universe of opportunity, Only one way to understand God is though his people our you in our out?”; )

  5. Great article once again, fully agree with everything (and I started my own commonplace book thanks to your article on the subject).
    There’s only one thing that I’m still contemplating on – building anti-library. Buying 1-3 books would be one of the first things I’d do after getting paid, until I started reading Seneca.

    “A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read.”
    -Seneca, Letter II

    What is your take on it? Do you think it’s viable advice only in the context of his times, concerns only certain people or do you think Seneca was totally wrong on this account?

  6. Ryan, thanks for all the insight into your reading and learning.

    As I’ve been ramping up my reading and focusing on retaining information, I’m struggling because of how many inspirational and important ideas and quotations in books such as The Meditations and The Score Takes Care of Itself. How much marginalia do you write in books like this that have so much great info and how many cards do you write? 10? 100?

  7. Great article!

    I’ve been a huge public library advocate my whole life but in the past year or so I’ve made it a priority to buy most of the books I’m really interested in (based on your advice). I do find the information stays with me, is more available for reference and because I can mark up the books I’m much more active in my reading.

    I do still buy a good amount of books on the Kindle. It’s probably half and half at this point. The biggest reason for this is I can easily carry a book with me at all times because I can access my kindle library on my phone.

  8. I grew up extremely poor but was fortunate enough to develop a love of reading. And even more lucky to leave school (including college which both bored me to tears) with my basic love of reading intact and not totally destroyed by the horrible textbooks pushed on kids. Thank you for writing this. It’s one of the best pieces on reading and what to do with it all I’ve ever read. I’ve been accumulating knowledge over a lifetime in kind of mishmash fashion. Your one of the few people that gives us learners some kind of systematic, organic way to put it to use in serving a purpose (for the reader and an audience). I look forward to your writings each time. Neve stop.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. April Coffee Talk: Mind, Body, Business & Books (#39) - May 26, 2016

    […] Ryan Holiday on Marginalia, the Anti-Library, and Ways to Master the Lost Art of Reading […]