Treat Your Reading Like You Treat Your Workout – Record

Record Results — Take a Note

Most of us have heard the business adage, “What gets measured gets managed,” usually attributed to Peter Drucker.

The phrase has been modified by gurus, teachers, and coaches in various disciplines to “what gets measured gets done” and “what gets measured gets improved.”

Well, it appears that Drucker never uttered the oft attributed phrase.

In fact, high-performance coaches now argue that though the aphorism may, on the whole be true, the concept needs to be refined to be helpful. The aphorism’s truth depends on what exactly you’re measuring and how you’re measuring it.

If we rephrase the idea and apply it to notetaking of reading, we might say what gets noted, gets remembered.

As author W. Somerset Maugham explained in A Writer’s Notebook (1946),

“By making a note of something that strikes you, you separate it from the incessant stream of impressions that crowd across the mental eye, and perhaps fix it in your memory. All of us have had good ideas or vivid sensations that we thought would one day come in useful, but which, because we were too lazy to write them down, have entirely escaped us. When you know you are going to make a note of something, you look at it more attentively than you otherwise would, and in the process of doing so the words are borne in upon you that will give it its private place in reality.”

But what’s the best way to make a note of your reading? Moreover, is it notetaking or note taking or note-taking?

The multiple, acceptable spellings of the word exemplify the numerous ways one might take notes. As with workouts, finding and refining a method is an individual quest. What’s important is to take accurate notes of what matters for your purposes.

There are dozens of costly devices and expensive apps available to track your physical workouts. So it’s no surprise that notetaking, too, has become big business for developers and online entrepreneurs.

Using a notetaking system can be helpful, but they require a fee and, more importantly, time. And there’s a switching cost should you choose the wrong app for your purposes.

It’s worth remembering that for hundreds of years, artists, writers, explorers, and scientists — often lacking the basics like plumbing, electricity, or toilet paper — created notetaking systems for themselves.

They recorded passages, drew images or doodles, collected data, made calculations, noted their questions, and commented on what they read and thought about.

They didn’t need someone to give them a notetaking app or system to get down to work.

There are, of course, the famous notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, and Charles Darwin. But others were assiduous scribblers and notetakers, too.

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552 - 1618)

statesman, explorer, poet, writer

Sir Walter Raleigh is remembered by many school children as the guy who introduced us to Virginia, tobacco, and the potato — this is not entirely truthful, but it’s a good story.

History describes him as handsome with a six-foot frame (at a time when most men were 5′ 5”), slim build, light brown eyes and a penchant for extravagant dress with ruffles and pearls. His fellow courtier colleagues often complained of his ostentatious display.

Walter became a favorite of Elizabeth I serving for a time as her personal bodyguard. But she was a demanding queen whose affections were not to be trifled with.

When it was brought to her attention that without her permission, Raleigh had secretly married one of her lady’s maids, Elizabeth dispatched the husband and his new wife, Bess Throckmorton to The Tower of London — to reside separately.

The Queen’s womanly pique wained when she realized she needed Sir Walter’s skillset to explore the Americas and defeat the Spanish Armada. Walter and Bess were released from incarceration.

Unfortunately, it would not be Raleigh’s last residence in The Tower.

After Elizabeth’s death in 1603, her successor James I accused Raleigh of treason, had him arrested under a death warrant, and locked him (again) in The Tower. The death part of the warrant was rescinded, but Raleigh remained locked in The Tower for 13 years.

He lived well by Tower standards.

In their eminently entertaining book, Sir Walter Raleigh In Life & Legend (2011), — a book that hasn’t gotten the love it deserves — Mark Nichols and the late Penry Williams write,

"Incarceration was comfortable enough. …he was allowed his two rooms in the Bloody Tower, a ‘stilhows’ or laboratory, a private garden for his exercise and congenial company. And,...Ralegh had his books. Five hundred and fifteen titles in at least five languages are listed in his commonplace of 1607. He received an allowance of £208 per annum for food, fuel and light, a figure later increased by 50%."

In addition, as an ‘eminent prisoner,’ he was permitted constant visitors — including conjugal visits with his wife — as evidenced by the birth of a third son, Carew born sometime around 1604-05.

Raleigh was also permitted pen, ink, and lots of paper.

Even with such privileges, residing in the guarded abode came with challenges.

Prisoners were well aware that exquisite torture machines were readily available, one’s head could roll on a Royal whim, and ‘bad things’ could mysteriously appear in a daily meal — and no one would know till it was too late.

Lockdown in The Tower could be deadly — at a minimum it probably provoked lots of anxiety.

But Raleigh, the prisoner, put worries aside and focused his time and attention productively. Nichols and Williams:

“…[He] found that imprisonment provided the time to write without distraction. During the first decade of his long incarceration he converted himself into something like a one-man think-tank, issuing a flow of tracts on the affairs of the day and on broad issues of statecraft. Their number and their range are striking.”

Raleigh then turned his attention to a bigger project — a multi-volume history of the world from ancient times to the present.

His notebooks suggest he was thinking about a history of the world as early as 1607, but Raleigh Trevelyan, (a direct descendent of Sir Walter’s) in his biography, Sir Walter Raleigh (2002) suggests, ‘he may have been thinking about it for several decades, judging from all the trunks of books he carried on his sea voyages.’

In all likelihood, Raleigh got down to the serious business of writing The History of the World around 1611, eight years into his lockdown.

His notebooks included drawings and commentary about the books he’d been reading in preparation for his history.

Anna Beer, in her eminently readable and insightful biography which seeks to understand the man and his times, Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh (2018) expounds;

"It was part of his quest to understand the world and to engage with it. In prison, he built up a rich personal library of five hundred books, vital tools for the writing of a universal history. In prison, he drew maps of lands he would never visit, studied battles on land and sea that had taken place millennia before and brought to vivid life ancient civilizations that had crashed and burned. In prison, he questioned where, how and why events had unfolded as they had, always hinting at, but rarely spelling out, their relevance to contemporary life."

In November or December 1614, the first volume of Raleigh’s magnum opus made its public debut — one volume, almost a million words, about 8 pounds in weight with an elaborate frontispiece with no author attribution — but everyone knew who’d written it.

It’s a remarkable achievement to be able to divert one’s mind from possible demise — get consumed with reading, get serious about notetaking (without an app), then sit down and write an epic tome.

Despite being banned by James I shortly after publication, the work was extremely popular, going through eleven print editions in the 17th century. It was a favorite of Oliver Cromwell and John Milton, notwithstanding its unfinished status — the first volume of an intended multi-volume set.

Raleigh would be released from The Tower in 1617, only to be returned a year later when his head would finally roll. But The History of the World remains in print, ranked #99 in The Guardian’s list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books.

The Guardian explains why it’s on its best list,

Like many early modern Europeans, Raleigh placed a special value on the study of the past. He was a scholar and a politico who saw historical expertise as not just a foundation for political practice and theory, but as a means of advancing his power in the court. The rise of historical scholarship during this period encouraged the circulation of its methods to other disciplines, such as philosophy, transforming Europe’s intellectual – and political – regimes.

Raleigh’s advice on statecraft in his History is still practical. Take for instance, “Whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”

The History is not an easy read for modern audiences as Nicholls and Williams describe. It is ‘encumbered with thickets of biblical commentary’ and ‘sinking under the weight of detail.’ But it is still worthy of its place on the ‘best of’ list.

A Short Note:

If you are so inclined, Buddenbrooks Rare Books and Manuscripts in Massachusetts has a first edition of The History of The World printed in 1614 by William Stansby for Walter Burre bookseller (London) available for a mere $14,500 — or you can request an appointment at the New York Society Library Rare Books Collection to see a first edition copy from 1614!

Sir Isaac NEWTON (1643 - 1727)

scientist, mathematician, lecturer, Master of the Mint, writer

By many accounts, Sir Isaac Newton was not a nice man.

He used the scientific findings of others to advance his own research, published the work of colleagues without their permission, besmirched the reputation of rivals, saw no problem in punishing counterfeiters by hanging, drawing, then quartering, and ‘blackballed’ worthy colleagues for membership into the prestigious Royal Society when he was its President.

Rob Iliffe Oxford professor, author of Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (2017), and Editorial Director of The Newton Project, an enterprise whose purpose is to make Newton’s papers available online, has said he believes Newton’s biographer Richard Westfall, author of Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (1979) came to loath his subject. “He was not the first to feel this way about the Great Man.”

For all his failings, Newton is the human who almost singlehandedly pushed us into the modern world with his thinking and writing. His contributions to present-day thinking cannot be overstated.

He amassed a vast library to which he repeatedly returned as he generated thousands of written notes on everything from cosmology, mathematics, science theory, alchemy (chemistry), optics, and religion and theology.

At his death, his library numbering close to 2,000 volumes, was sold to the warden of Fleet Prison for 300 pounds (by my rough estimate in today’s dollars about $67,645). John Huggins wanted the library for his son, a fledgling parish priest. Huggins thought a library would improve the appearance of his rector son in the eyes of his son’s new parish.

The fate of Newton’s library over the centuries is a story onto itself.

But it’s not just Newton’s library that is significant. It’s also Newton’s note-taking that still captivates us.

Sarah Dry’s entertaining and splendid book The Newton Papers (2014), is as much a history of the Newton’s papers as it is a history of scientific inquiry.

To his last days, Newton made notes while looking for answers. Dry quotes John Conduitt, the great man’s confidant and disciple: Newton was “hardly ever alone without a pen in his hand and a book before him.”

Newton’s papers and notebooks cover his major interests — science, math, alchemy, optics, The Royal Mint, and religion/theology.

But the idea of taking notes was a new phenomenon, not just because paper was still a rare and expensive commodity. And, even more revolutionary was the idea of keeping or publishing someone’s notes for general consumption.

Sarah Dry,

"The assumption that the manuscripts of a person, even as celebrated a thinker as Newton, might be worth saving is a relatively new phenomenon. It dates, not coincidentally, to Newton’s own era and relates to the changes in scholarship and knowledge in the period when exploration opened new worlds to investigation. As the search for new things widened, the need to preserve the new knowledge intensified. New systems for organizing knowledge arose, from plans for a universal language … to shorthand writing techniques, … from cabinets of natural history that physically arrayed new specimens, to abstract schemes…"

Newton wrote in notebooks, often previously used by others. His famous Waste Book was a hand-me-down used by his hated stepfather, Barnabas Smith. He also used individual sheets of paper folded into folios, sometimes tied together with string. It was a haphazard system.

Sarah Dry again,

“He generally wrote only on the recto, or right-hand page, inserting addenda or corrections on the blank verso side if necessary. Sheets of paper could be attached in folded folios or with string. …But often it seems that whatever order was imposed was done so in the simplest way possible, by stacking or handling. Newton was a parsimonious man. He reused fifty-year-old scraps of paper, and this meant that the jottings of early adulthood often shared the same page as those of his dotage. To make matters worse, most of the papers were undated.

Haphazard as it might appear, it was Newton’s incessant notetaking and ‘doodling,’ emanating from his reading and experiments, that led to his many groundbreaking insights in multiple domains.”

Sarah Dry continues,

“Perhaps the most important [skill] was his lifelong habit of incessant note-taking. … His abilities weren’t limited to his tremendous mathematical skill or his far-reaching insights into physics and optics but encompassed something more fundamental: the capacity to critically interrogate a text and take notes that formed the basis for his own, innovative research.  

Newton’s note taking practices acquired in the 1660s were still novel enough in 1727 that Conduitt thought it worth describing how Newton “used to write down any thought which occurred upon the books he was reading, and make large abstracts of them. From the beginning, Newton was patient, persevering, and productive.”

A Short Note

Inheritors of Newton’s papers found that he’d written multiple copies of the same text as he persevered, iterating a line of inquiry toward perfection.

The importance of iteration is now a bedrock concept in entrepreneurship. ➡ ➡ ➡ 

BEATRIX POTTER (1866 – 1943)

farmer, natural scientist, conservationist, illustrator, writer

I don’t remember reading a Peter Rabbit or Jemima Puddle-Duck story as a child; gIven their renown and popularity, I am clearly in the minority.

Before she wrote and illustrated her enduring tales, Beatrix Potter kept a journal/notebook.

Beginning around 1881, age 14 or 15, she recorded her musing about life, her opinions (often strident) on everything from people, art, world events, observations of the natural world, and her thoughts on her reading. The notebooks/journals are a thoughtful account by an atypical young woman of her generation — or any generation for that matter.

The only rub — her notebooks were written in a secret code.

Writing in code enabled the young Beatrix to freely express herself, where, as she once wrote, ‘no one could read this.

In her eminently readable and beautiful biography that captures this multifaceted woman and her time, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2006), Linda Lear speculates that at least initially, writing in secret code enabled the independent and sometimes truculent teenager to avoid the prying eyes of a nosey mother.

The following is a long quote from the Lear biography but instructive in exposing how and why Potter made notes.

“Potter’s journal was also an important laboratory for her irrepressible creativity. It served as a literary sketchbook where she could sharpen her eye, improve her story-telling, and even experiment with various forms and styles, in some cases clearly imitating writers she admired like Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, and Fanny Burney. Writing in code had the added benefit of taking much longer and required more attention to structure and syntax.
It changed the mundane task of reporting what appeared to be rather routine events into a more important, clandestine enterprise. Like the modern obsession with solving crossword puzzles, writing in cipher engaged her mind each day and gave her a secret sense of creative accomplishment.”

“The journal encompassed the years when her vision of the future stretched rather endlessly from boredom to uselessness”

It fulfilled a need not only to express herself, but to have something over which she, who was powerless in every other way, exercised absolute control.”

Potter’s jottings continued till 1897, when age 30, she was about to submit a scientific paper, ‘On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae’ to the Linnean Society of London. Her final notebook/journal entries describe, in part, her preparation for the paper and the discussion on the topic with her uncle, the distinguished chemist Sir Henry Roscoe.

Then her secret writing ceased.

Potter lived till age 77 through many personal and cultural challenges, including two world wars. Yet, she never disposed of those notebook pages ‘no one could read.’

Before her death in 1943, she and her lawyer husband William Hellis (she’d married in 1913 at age 47) carefully arranged to leave 4,000+ acres of their Lake District land, its many cottages, flocks of Herdwick sheep, and some of Potter’s illustrations to the National Trust. It was a complicated bequest with precise instructions.

As for her coded notebooks, which she appears to have mentioned only once in passing to a friend via letter, she made no provisions — and left no key for her code.

Telling — don’t you think for a woman like Potter who was known to be a good planner?

The Potter papers and notebooks were left bundled in her home until 1952 when a family relative came across the curious writing and decided to find someone to decipher the content.

The code was finally broken, and her notebooks were published in 1966 as The Journal of Beatrix Potter from 1881 to 1897 by wealthy Essex businessman, Potter devotee, and code breaker Leslie Linder.

As it turns out, Potter’s code was not particularly sophisticated. It was a mono-alphabetic substitution cipher code — each letter of the alphabet is substituted with a symbol. It’s the kind of code kids are taught in boy/girl scouts.

Nonetheless, it took Linder years of work and some luck to land upon Potter’s plan. Hard to know who had the most grit — Potter for her years of coded chronicles or Linder for his dogged persistence.

The Journal of Beatrix Potter reveals an inquisitive, curious mind amid mundane living. Her sometimes biting commentary of those around her punctuates the miscellany of commentary on daily life, art exhibits, and current events. Take for example, 

"LONDON [1886]
Thursday, February 25th — Home on 25th. How amusing aunt Harriet is, she is more like a weasel than ever, and her tongue — it exceeds all description. (page 180)

Saturday, April 3rd
The Rossettis have sold very high. To my mind the are bad, they only claim to attention is their colour, and that is hot, and of course one must not judge them by nature, but their artificiality is not beautiful as is sometimes the case with the Burne-Jones. Not that I like the latter either, but they are a shade better than the Rossettis, particularly such as contain harmonious combinations of blues and grey like the panels of creation, otherwise they are very weak in drawing, morbid in style, and forced and ridiculous in sentiment."

This was a woman who embraced the seemingly ordinary in life and faced the limitations and setbacks handed to her with creativity and stoicism.  As characterized by some, her journal is ordinary and mundane, but her life was engaged and abundant, as evidenced by her books and stunning illustrations of fauna, foliage, and fungi. 

A Short Note

Author of perennial bestseller and one of my favorite books, Steal Like An Artist (20212), Austen Kleon recommends drawing in your notebook or journal to remember.

ANGELA CARTER (1940 - 1992)

journalist, essayist, teacher, novelist, writer

Angela Carter is one of my favorite writers. She took chances with her prose. I came to her in the late 70s before she hit full literary flame.

The audio version of The Bloody Chamber (1979) narrated by Richard Armitage and Emilia Fox is superlative entertainment.  Superlative!  Chapter 5 in Audible is a Carter telling of the tale of Puss and his boots.  Creative writing doesn’t get better than this — and the audio performance only adds more pleasure to the writing.

In the service of Ph.D. dissertations, pints of academic blood have been spilled about Carter’s discourse on feminism, sexuality, violence, and magical realism. I’m not sure I agree with much of it, and I’m not sure she would either.

Fiercely independent thinker who jumped from any box she was placed, she was famous for changing her mind, deliberately poking cultural bears, and swearing unapologetically when annoyed.

Edmund Gordon, in his most worthy biography, The Invention of Angela Carter (2016), a finalist for the US National Book Critics Circle Award, and selected as a Book of the Year by The Guardian, Observer, Financial Times, Spectator, Daily Telegraph, and Sunday Times, writes,

“This belief — that our selves are neither false nor true, but merely roles we either master or are mastered by — is one of the central themes of Angela Carter’s fiction.  Her characters wear their personalities like so many fancy-dress costumes…

Her own personality displayed splashes of fancy dress. She enjoyed making people laugh, and had a knack for the startling, side-splitting phrase. She swerved between registers, from foul-mouthed demonic to jargon-strewn highbrow, so abruptly that neither seemed to be quite her natural voice. “

“At other moments she spoke with such exquisite courtesy, accompanied by such pantomime gestures of deference (tilted head, gathered palms), that people tended to suspect her of irony…”

In 1987/88, sitting on top of a skyrocketing literary career and keen to command a substantial book advance as Fay Weldon, Michael Holroyd, and her good friend Salman Rushdie had done, Carter began working on a novel. The original title was Chance and Hazard; it would become Wise Children (1991)

Shortly after Carter finished the tale while the manuscript was in the midst of the publishing process, she was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. 

Her book debuted with a truncated marketing tour but much critical praise. A few months later, she was dead.

It’s hard to believe Wise Children (1991) was Carter’s last dance; she was only 51. Many argue it’s her finest novel; some say its exuberance is exhausting; all regret her too early demise. 

An original thinker, a provocative storyteller with prose that need to be re-read for their beauty, Carter was a force of nature who constantly worked at her craft.

For decades Carter kept journals and notebooks. As she saw death approaching, she made arrangements for her literary estate to be managed by Susannah Clapp.  She wanted to be sure ‘her boys’ — husband Mark Pearce and son Alexander — were well cared for in her absence.

Susannah Clapp knew her way around British literary circles. She was a founding editor of the London Review of Books and worked throughout the London literary scene as publisher’s reader, editor, and critic in radio and print.  Currently, she’s the theater critic for The Observer and a contributor to BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves.

She served as literary executor for Bruce Chatwin before becoming Carter’s literary executor.  It’s worth noting both writers served as the subject matter for Clapp’s only books:  With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer (1997) and A Card from Angela (2012). 

Not surprisingly, Clapp now has her own agent.

In 2012, as Clapp’s book about her deceased friend was hitting store shelves, an excerpt appeared in The Guardian online,

“She had told me that she kept journals and described the shape they took. They were partly working notes and partly casual jottings, roughly arranged so that the two kinds of entry were on opposite pages. They were stacked in the study: lined exercise books in which she had started to write during the 60s and which covered nearly 30 years of her life. She decorated their covers as girls used to decorate their school books, with cut-out labels (the Player’s cigarette sailor was one), paintings of cherubs and flowers and patterns of leaves.

Over the years, Carter filled notebooks with preliminary drafts of her writing, quotations, and summaries of the reading she typically did for each of her projects.”

Carter’s notebooks for Wise Children, now held by The British Library, are described by the Library,

“Divided into several sections, including ‘Hazards / High Life + people’ and ‘Screen + stage,’ the notebook shows Carter fashioning characters and plot from research, prior to writing a first full draft of the novel. Interspersed throughout the notes, however, are some longer prose passages – essentially the earliest draft fragments of Wise Children.”

The notebooks are filled with sketches of her characters and outlandish real-world tidbits that she culled from various sources. There is a bit about a bizarre 1936 telegram from a Texas theater company requesting dirt from Shakespeare’s garden and water from the Arden River to bless an upcoming production; a bit about a zebra escape from the London Zoo after the Blitz — all bits she might or might not work into her story. 

As Edmund Gordon quotes Carter’s letter to her publisher Carmen Callil at Virago Press, the plan for Wise Children was “a long, comic, panoramic novel that will parody whilst lovingly reduplicating the family saga genre and will use the theatre, both legit and vaudeville, and the plays of Shakespeare, as a metaphor for British society over the last hundred years…Its subtext, evidently, is the general inefficacy of patriarchy.”

If you think a novel with such a panorama would require a cornucopia of notes, you would be correct.   

The narrator of Wise Children, Dora Chance alerts us on page 3 to the hodgepodge,

“Sometimes I think, if I look hard enough, I can see back into the past. There goes the wind, again. Crash. Over goes the dustbin, all the trash spills out… empty cat-food cans, cornflakes packets, laddered tights, tea leaves … I am at present working on my memories and researching family history — see the word processor, the filing cabinet, the card indexes, right hand, left hand, right side, left side, all the dirt on everybody.  What a wind! Whooping and banging all along the street, the kind of wind that blows everything topsy-turvy.” 

But don’t let this seemingly unbridled passage fool you.  Carter’s notebooks and subsequent prose contain a well-organized and brilliant literary storm — if a few too many literary lightning strikes for some — it is well-worth the topsy-turvy. 

A Short Note

Adam Grant in his bestselling book, Originals:  How Non-Conformists Move the World, tells the stories of some who changed the world. I’d argue that Angela Carter was an original and a change agent with her prose. Her notebooks helped her find a new way.  May she rest in peace.

For these creative thinkers: Walter Raleigh, Isaac Newton, Beatrix Potter, and Angela Carter, their notetaking and ‘scribbling’ — with pen and paper — was a starting point for their work. 

None had a Smartphone, a Google connection, or even a fancy computer — let alone a notetaking app to organize their information and thoughts.

Yet, each managed to write books — still in print — that changed how we think about the world. 

So I ask you, what’s your notetaking system, and how might it inform your next creative project? 

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