November 5

Why I Read Physical Books and Start Most of my Writing by Hand

According to an article in the New Yorker, "Moleskine-style" notebooks have been produced since the 1850's, by small French bookbinding companies, and distributed in Paris bookstores. They were used by Picasso, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and the like. (“Moleskine” refers to the traditional oilcloth binding; moleskines are not made out of moles’ skins.)

Even though the company was started in 1997, the popularity of the notebooks paradoxically soared with the emergence of blogs. In his interview on The Unmistakable Creative, former PR director Erik Fabian described the Moleskine as a "platform for your imagination".

Over the last 10 years, and more than 700 interviews, there are two patterns that I've noticed in my friends that are prolific and poetic writers:

  1. They write in physical notebooks
  2. They read physical books

Sarah Peck, Amber Rae, and Ryan Holiday all share at least one if not both of these patterns. Amber and Sarah make music from their words. Ryan has written 6 books in 6 years.

Until late 2013, I did most of my reading on a Kindle. At the start of 2014, I interviewed Amber and Dani Shapiro on The Unmistakable Creative.

  • Even though I'd already read the book on Kindle, I immediately ordered a physical copy of Dani's book Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. To this day, I return to it regularly, using many quotes in blog posts, and am inspired with ideas for my articles. It has more underlined passages and sentences than any of my other books. After that interview, I also switched exclusively to reading physical books.

  • I resisted writing in a physical notebook because my handwriting is terrible. Sometimes, I even have a hard time reading it. But Amber encouraged me to fall in love with my chicken scratch, and I have started all of my writing in a Moleskine ever since.

Since making these changes, I started to notice two patterns in my own life:

  • I retain far more from reading physical books than I ever have from Kindle or audiobooks
  • Physical writing in notebooks has made me more present, productive, and prolific as a writer

The benefits of reading physical books and writing by hand far outweigh the costs of being slower and taking up space.

Writing By Hand

The fever is lost on the screen. The evidence of the mind making the thing-made visible in the cross outs, the thick rewriting of words over other words, the fanciful sketches- a cloud, a camel, a man in a hat-that seem to ride the waves of language, the places where the pen grows dark and forceful, nearly stabbing in its intensity

-Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life

A physical notebook is one of the best distraction-free writing tools because there's nothing else competing for your attention. You have no choice but to be present and focused. You're also forced to slow down because you can't feverishly jot down every thought that comes to mind.

A physical notebook is one of the best distraction free writing tools there is.

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If you're somebody who does your writing early in the morning, it keeps you from turning on your devices first thing in the morning. And it prevents you from starting your day on the internet, which damages your brain.

"When we write by hand, we're forced be more economical and strategic with our language, crafting notes in our own words. To do that, we have to listen more closely, think about the information, and essentially distill others' words and thoughts through our own neurological filtration system and onto the page," says Ryder Caroll in his new book The Bullet Journal Method.

If you're not convinced, try the following exercise:

  1. Write down a quote from one of your favorite books, podcasts, etc. on your computer and riff on it for 10 minutes.
  2. Repeat the exercise, but this time use a physical notebook instead.

Chances are that you'll notice a big difference in the speed at which you think and a better ability to manage your attention.

Your behavior is linked to your environment whether you're consciously aware of it or not. If you set your notebook out the night before, sit down at your desk, or wherever you choose to write with a pen in hand, eventually the notebook and your writing habit will be linked.

I can trace every book idea, creative project, and breakthrough back to the pages of one of one of my notebooks. I had the idea for using surfing as a metaphor for life and business years before I wrote Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best.

The pages of a notebook are fertile soil for creative ideas. So you should always carry one.

Reading Physical Books

"The physical realness of books contributes to our ability to enter the space where we can dwell un-judged with our hard-won thoughts and multilayered emotions and feel we have found our way home." - Maryanne Wolf

Physical books are heavy, take up lots of space, and they are not necessarily convenient. I've filled 3 Ikea bookshelves in 2 years, and new books show up at my apartment every few days. The only reason I wish I had a bigger apartment was so I could have a room just for my books.

Nothing else competes for your attention when you're reading a physical book. This helps you sustain your attention for more extended periods, and makes it much easier to avoid sources of distraction. Despite the popularity of both Amazon and the Kindle, people still go to bookstores and buy physical books. When I met Tucker Max for the first time, I noticed that his house was filled with books from wall to wall. Ryan Holiday also has a massive physical library and has said this about it:

I’ve purchased a fair amount of Kindle books. Do you know how many times I have “flipped” through those books after I read them? Or looked at the notes I took? Never. I don’t even remember which ones I bought. If there were no other reason to prefer physical to digital, this is it. - Ryan Holiday

Reading on Screens and The F-Pattern

If you've read this far down the page, ask yourself how much you remember. Better yet, see if you can recall anything significant from all the things you read on the internet this week.

Chances are it's not very much. When you read on a screen, you scan more than you read. Your eye movement follows what is known as an F-pattern. The inevitable result of scanning is that you move from deep reading to shallow browsing.

In a world, where we are inundated with digital input, texts, notifications, pings, buzzes, pops, and more, going analog isn't just a productivity hack. It's a form of meditation and mindfulness. Reading physical books and writing by hand are two of the best available methods we have today to reduce the impact sources of distraction that we have in our lives.


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