Reading by deleting

In the old days, I would have researched my book by going to a library and pulling journals and books from dusty stacks, then reading them and writing down, on index cards, the passages that I might want to quote, or perhaps photocopying the pages.

These days, I’m finding a lot of journal articles and book passages–especially the classics–online. And in the past year, I’ve increasingly found myself doing something very different (without even consciously deciding to do so):

I download the PDF of some 100-page journal article, copy and paste it into a word document, and then read the article while simultaneously deleting everything I know I won’t need.

I know this sounds bizarre, but I really like it:

  • it makes me read much more actively, since I’m deciding for every paragraph and sentence how it does or does not fit into my themes. So I actually absorb the passages that I’m deleting, as well as those that I’m keeping.
  • it gives me this wonderful sense of progress. I watch the document’s word count go down, and down, and down, and I know I must be doing well.
  • and finally, I end up with exactly the same passages that, in the past, I would have typed in for citation at a later point. So I’ve reversed the process.

It reminds me of what I read somewhere about Michelangelo (I think): Somebody asked him how he sculpts these beautiful statues. Easy, he said: I look at the block of marble, see the statue inside, and then just chip away all the rest.

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2 thoughts on “Reading by deleting

  1. Pingback: simplicity « ~

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