How should you take and write notes in books?

Hey Tyler!

Do you have a process for note taking while you read? Like clipping important parts in books, etc? Or do you just read and that’s all?

Matthew E.

And in the same week William D. writes to me:

…How do annotate, or mark up books that you read? This question is prompted by a lively discussion between a professor of mine (who argued that the text should be kept clean to ensure the integrity of re-readings) and myself (I find that my comprehension and ability to navigate the text is increased by annotations). Do you think that re-readings are harmed or benefitted by the presence of past annotations on the text? Personally I am not sure. Does it depend on the text?

My approach is simple, though not sophisticated.  If I own the book, and there is something interesting on the page, I fold over the page corner.  (If it is a library book I simply write down the page numbers.)  The mere act of folding makes the fact or point easier to remember, and in fact that is my main purpose, namely to turn the piece of information into a claim about visual space.  That said, the folds also make the source easier to find again if needed.  I agree that marking up the page “ruins” your next read of the source.  I find that by having to search again on the page I find other significant ideas as well.

That said, if I teach a book I have to mark it up to find particular passages more easily on the spur of the moment before the students in class.  Then I stop learning from my rereads of the book, but instead learn from the teaching of it.

I pretend no universality for those procedures, but they work for me.  Do you do something different?


Work or leisure books?

For daily work there are small but colorful post-it flags with light adhesive. You can even write on them. 8-10 of these flags are enough. When work is finished, store the notes and references in a text file. Months or years later is quite satisfying to do a Crtl + F in your personal index and find the perfect reference.

Leisure books? Never. There's pleasure in rereading the whole thing.

Post-its, absolutely! Saves the pages from dog-earing. I use big ones (3x3) or larger and stick them out beyond the page edge. Sometimes I write the topic down the Post-it edge so they look like file folder tabs. Put the book back on my shelf, find them years later.

Agreed! 3 x 3 Post-Its are the best! As a book lover, I find it difficult to either write in a book or dog-ear it. It's like some sort of cultural crime. I don't litter, either. And if I had a dog, I wouldn't let it poop on other people's property.

That said, there is a book I plan to re-read. I'm an expert in the field, and it might actually enhance the value of the book if I were to write in marginal notes. I've been thinking about that, and I have two copies of the first edition, so I would still have a clean one.

... and they work in library books.

Most books are a BIG IDEA exploited during hundreds of pages so that in that way you have to pay 20 dollars for the idea. Sometimes this bloating is better, sometimes worse (i.e., inspirational anecdotes), but most books can have their "usefulness" reduced to 10-20 pages.

To get these 10-20 pages, I read in EPUB files and highlight interesting passages and write notes through PocketBook. Then I export the highlights and notes in xhtml format and convert them to a Google Doc through an R script. Then, most important of all, I try to "rewrite" the book from this Google Doc during trips. This is the moment when I really learn from the book. Not only is much easier to retain concepts from 10 concentrated pages than from 300 bloated pages. Rewriting it forces me to link the concepts and really understand them. It works in a similar way to the advice of learning something by trying to teach it to someone.

"Most books are a BIG IDEA exploited during hundreds of page..."

yes, generally true -- both non-fiction & fiction.

Geeez -- this is the 21st Century and the topic here is how to manually, painstakingly, awkwardly extract key information from bloated, poorly written print documents... with makeshift pen & paper notes. How should efficient human communication 'really' work in year 2018 ?

Next consistent topic here should be about the best way to grease donkey cart axles with pork lard.

Warm the lard until liquid, soak strips of cloth in the lard, let them congeal in the cold night air, then wrap them around the axle where it contacts the cart. Replace when you hear the axle squeaking.

This is a great premise for a blog! If the existence of Hardbound is any indication, there's a market for quick versions of new non-fiction releases.

I leave index card bookmarks with notes and the page number written on them, so if they are removed they can be easily replaced. I find them particularly useful when a book references other works, but does not make the reference explicit (there is a portion of dialogue in God Emperor of Dune, for example, which clearly comes from Alamut by Vladimir Bartol, and one of the epigraphs similarly has its roots in Khalil Gibran's The Prophet). I generally find it distasteful to dog-ear or make marks in a book, and I will only do so if my copy is already in poor condition.

And where do you write down the pages for library books? Do you have a special notebook for that? A computer file? How is it organized, by topics or by books?

I use the first blank pages of the book to note down "Resume quotes" (page number and and topic)

I assume we all do. Don't we?

'If I own the book, and there is something interesting on the page, I fold over the page corner. (If it is a library book I simply write down the page numbers.)'

Is that because you don't want to damage library property, or because your library carries multiple copies ?

I write a lot in books I own, not least because it's an easy way for me to work out an idea that comes up while reading them. I don't think it hurts re-reading, because, especially if more than a few months have pasted (and certainly if more than a year has passed) I am often surprised at what I wrote before, and that itself helps me think more carefully about the text - why did I think that was important or insightful the first time, but it didn't hit me that way now? What has changed? Those are often useful questions.

That phenomenon always strikes me as interesting--passages that seemed to be alive and vital and "charged," upon re-reading months later, seem obvious and trite. I've often wondered how to capture the "charge" for the next time. I plan to experiment by writing down, at the time of the first encounter, what it is that makes it so meaningful at the time (e.g. was it because it reminded me of something else I read elsewhere, or a TV show episode I saw, or a conversation I'd had, etc.). Perhaps context is key.

'My approach is simple, though not sophisticated.'

Amazing, as if sophisticated is ever simple.

For a while using a search engine was easy but sophisticated. Now it is not sophisticated, but you can use it to search for many things described as sophisticated yet simple.

Writing makes me think. And remember. I always wrote in the margins of my textbooks/casebooks. It made me think, and remember. I'd be surprised if I'm alone on this. The very act of writing triggers a part of the brain that involves organization and logic/reason. If one cannot express an idea in written words, it's likely not much of an idea. Indeed, I've often written an idea only to disagree with it! Back when I wrote journal articles, it wasn't unusual to start writing the article with one view and then finish with a different view. Today I still write legal opinions, and even though they are in part advocacy, the process of writing sometimes changes my opinion (or the rationale for it). There's something about writing. Pity the poor fellow who doesn't write. He likely cannot think. You know anybody like that?

Yeah. Write or sketch.

I have a private wikipedia, with an entry for every book I read. Notes go in there. Makes it easy to find stuff, and also to cross-reference.

I add my own entries to the index, close to where they would be printed. On the indexed page I make a minuscule dot next to the line or paragraph in question (smaller than a printed period, as as to be unnoticeable unless one is looking).

Only once I wrote lightly, in pencil, in the margin of a library book, "NO, see Lewis Mumford." I laugh now. I wouldn't do it again. I forget the book. This was before I had read Jane Jacobs.
I enjoyed the post and comments.

A few notes on the notes I found in second-hand books:

With a quote from Montaigne:
I have adopted a custom of late, to note at the end of every book (that is, of those I never intend to read again) the time when I made an end on't, and the judgment I had made of it, to the end that this might, at least, represent to me the character and general idea I had conceived of the author in reading it;

I underline a lot in my own books. While I was in graduation, preparing my monograph, I developed a system of making my own index at the end of the book, which I then copied to a spreadsheet; that way, if I wanted to know where I had read things about X, I knew I had to look for Meyer pg 35 and Lippman pg 42, for example. But in the nearly two decades since I developed that, Kindles came along. I have two, one for regular reading and one that works as a pocket library, storing books that are not in my queue. That way, I can easily search even my print books, when I have the electronic version (the ones I need to reference the most I have in both electronic and print version). Kindles have an interesting feature, storing your clippings and annotations. Some years ago, I found a site that reorganizes those annotations and sends them to Evernote:

Rule 1. Any book with highlighting will make the person who highlit the passages seem insane. Same goes for notes. By symmetry then, our own notes are insane and at best only useful during the reading.

Rule 2. Books take a while to be digested -- e.g. the passages with the most currency will only be revealed well after a book has been laid to rest (i.e. weeks after transcribing the good passages and writing its review), and they won't always be the passages you transcribed.

Rule 3. Invert Rule 1 and find commentary that you enjoy. Try to make your commentaries more like those commentaries.

When I first read Henry Kissinger's "Diplomacy" years ago, so much of 19th century European history was new to me, at least in the detail that he presented, that I wrote as many notes in margins as there was text on the page. I'm on my fourth reading with another clean copy but this time I write the interesting parts straight to my computer.

I had that heavy book in my hands yesterday. Thanks for confirming that it's really worth reading.

Like him or not, and he’s got a huge ego, that’s a very illuminating work on relationships between states.

I hate when people writer in library books. A churlish look into mediocre thoughts.

When I'm reading e-books, I highlight using the Kindle app. The highlights are searchable and provide a useful synthesis for later recollection.

Tyler, what about ebooks?

If it is a physical book (I prefer physical books) I write the location of notable text in a separate notebook. The format goes like this p122l7ft which means - page 122 line 7 from top (fb it it is from bottom).

...and against those position markings, i'll write down my notes/thoughts. This way if i can easily access the main text when i want to refer it.

I type the passage with keywords into Word and save it, and if it's an e-book I cut and paste. I have several thousand pages of notes from over the years, which I review at times just to refresh my memory. That's why I come across as the human Google. Actually I'm better than Google and Wikipedia, which only gives on the first page a first-order approximation of most subjects.

I occasionally write short notes in the margin, in pencil. That doesn't really interfere with a fresh re-reading of the book.

Underlining or highlighting the text itself is an abomination. I imagine that it is mostly done by people who are highlighting what struck them as important a few seconds after they read it. This is unwise. I've also seen text that has been highlighted again and again on re-reads, until pretty much everything is underlined, or highlighted in pink, or highlighted in yellow, or circled... This is a totally disfunctional approach to understanding something.

The fundamental error of highlighting is thinking that the author was too stupid to write clearly. Maybe if that sentence _really_ needed to be emphasized, the author would have put it in italics?

Worse than that is highlighting in multiple colors.

If it's an American non-fiction book, the index is likely to be so lousy that you're almost obliged to dog-ear the book.

Agreed. What were they thinking?

It is a delight to look in one of my late father's books and see his handwriting. There you are: not often you get frank sentimentality in the comments on this blog.

Recently saw this and thought it was very interesting. I have not used yet.
David Seah fast book outliner

I have been wondering how to best take notes for 35 years, and tried many systems. Out of frustration I built a database into which I type my notes, or scan them. It organizes my notes, manages keywords, bibliography, prioritizes books that I want to read, files third party reviews, and organizes ideas Inspired from my reading by theme. I can find every note I’ve made, easily. If anyone wants a copy of the database, which I call Epirus, just let me know,

I would love to try it!! Jamie

Hey, I'd like a copy of the database as well

Yes, how can I get a copy if it, and in what platforms does it run?

I take marginal and underline a great deal in books, though I'm probably a tad more dumb than most heavy readers, so I need the extra effort to get myself to think through and remember the key parts. The notes usually just summarize and sometimes identify problems with arguments or key premises. To be sure, I usually take such efforts only when I want to closely study a book, which is usually limited to classics or stuff I'm reading for work.

It has occurred to me recently that surprisingly little study is done on the habits and methods of folks with a middling IQ who have nevertheless managed to find some success in intellectual occupations (frankly, like me). My obsessive note-taking habits might be something to recommend people with similar limitations.

And one more thing... at the end of every large (~20p) segment, write three-six sentences summarizing what you just read. Also, when you finished the book, summarize the entire thing on one page in the endpapers.

Underlining and highlighting is useless, and, in a library book, infuriating. "Why did I underline that?" I think in my own books and in the books that others have underlined I wonder, for far too long, why someone thought this one sentence mattered. Did they think it mattered that his name is "Robert Paulson," or does it matter that they say the entire phrase, or did something else entirely cross their mind as significant? Perhaps this is just the first time they say it? I actually find folding over the corner of a page only slightly less egregious.

A book for class needs to be a teaching book and nothing else, in my experience. And even then it's useful to have a sheet of paper that basically functions as a table of contents for important texts. I do find now that a PDF that can be searched a Command + F is more useful than an actual book when it comes to finding significant passages.

I was under the impression that most scholars, when they return to books for a re-read, acquire a new copy.

I do find chapter summaries, posted on index cards that are slipped into various parts of the book, useful.

Of the comments I see above, the personal wikipedia is a fascinating idea. I frankly did not even know this was possible.

I used to use color coded post it notes but now I just use the ubiquitous yellow ones. Occasionally, if a passage is really important, I will add a small note to myself in the margin.

I like to keep my books in perfect condition - as I have to pay for mine - so I don't fold corners. I take a small piece of paper - like a receipt from shopping that is blank on the back - and write page numbers on it.

Precisely my interventions for precisely the same reasons.

Info/pleasure books have myriad folded pages, no annotations. Books from which I teach are riddled with annotations.

I was listening to the interview of an author of a well-regarded non-fiction book relate the story of his experience doing a book-signing. A fan of his book was gushing about how much he found the book insightful and had read it several times. The author thumbed through the book and said, "it looks nearly pristine -- nothing is underlined or circled or highlighted, there are no notes in the margins, nothing is lined out -- you could not have read it critically."

Ever since, I have been in the habit of marking up books. Does it spoil a re-read? No. It enhances a re-read as I can not only take new insights from the author, I can see my personal intellectual growth.

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