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Reading books and taking notes

The Importance of taking notes

I like to think of tasks as either circular or linear. The metaphor comes from Atlas Shrugged:

The work of cooking a meal was like a closed circle, completed and gone, leading nowhere. But the work of building a path was a living sum, so that no day was left to die behind her, but each day contained all those that preceded it, each day acquired its immortality on every succeeding tomorrow.

A linear task builds upon itself, each new step depending on all previous steps. It compounds.

A circular task may be pleasant or necessary, but once done, nothing remains.

For a long time, I didn’t take any notes when reading non-fiction. A few weeks later I would have difficulty remembering the title of the books I had read, never mind the content. When reading a non-fiction book my goal is to find new mental tools and frameworks to use. If I don’t retain anything, it becomes a circular task.

I might as well just read the news, or twitter.

The Rand quote above is a good example. Would I remember it if I had not noted it down? Would I even have noticed it in the first place if I were not reading with note-taking in mind?

I now have 50 book notes in Evernote. Each contains all the highlights and notes I created while reading a book. Sometimes I just browse through them, reminding myself of the contents of a book. Often I pull out quotes for use in writing. When starting a new book, I first read my existing notes on the same subject.

As I read more books and refer back to old notes, links between ideas become more obvious. By noting these links or using them in writing, the component ideas become more fixed in my mind.

Tyler Cowen talks about finding alternative entry points to subjects. For example, to learn about Macedonia, he reads about macedonian wood carving, rather than attacking the subject front-on with a book on Macedonian history. By finding multiple entry points to a same subject, and keeping those ideas in your head at the same time, it is possible to build a more complete picture of the target subject.

As you re-encounter the same concepts you have chewed over in the past, they become easy to understand. The more active reading you do, the better you become at reading.

Merely the thought that I will be using my notes in future focuses me on the text. Instead of reading passively I consider the arguments carefully, look for exceptions or examples. During this process random ideas tend to pop into my mind and are captured in a note. “this reminds me of X” or “could be combined with Y?”.

Reading without note-taking is a waste of time. Reading with note-taking is a source of value.

How I take Notes

I like asking people who read a lot of non-fiction how they take notes. I have not noticed any patterns. Some people read paper books, some use kindle, quite a few listen to a lot of audio books. In each case the best way of actually collecting highlights and notes is going to be different. The difference between some people who write highly detailed reviews, and others who have only a few highlights, seems to be simply the amount of attention paid to the text and the volume of notes taken..

I took a lot of notes when reading Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”, and writing them up and puting together a review took around 3h of work.

It is important to finish the book quickly to allow you to hold as much as possible in your head at the same time. For a normal length book I try to finish within a week. This makes it easier to write up my notes at the end, since they tend to be short, abstract and badly spelled. If I wait too long, I forget what I was thinking at the time.

I always try to put the table of contents at the beginning of the notes, since I find reading through this reminds me of the structure and overall ideas of the book. For longer or denser books I sometimes write a note at the end of each chapter that summarises its primary idea. For well structured books, scanning the table of contents is enough.

I do all of my reading on a kindle paperwhite. While reading I highlight interesting sections. I write notes using the kindle itself. If I think of something not related to a particular passage and want to jot it down, I attach the note to a random word on the page.

I also highlight URLs to visit, related books to read, and things I want to research further.

The day after I finish a book, I copy the notes from the kindle web interface and paste them into Evernote. I run some search and replaces to clean up the formatting, then I reread the highlights and notes, fixing the notes as I go, and adding additional thoughts. Then, I write a review, pulling in highlights and notes as necessary.

Reducing Friction

I do all my reading on a kindle so I don’t need an external device or notepad while I read. Since all my notes are digital, I don’t need to type them up to get them into Evernote.

When reading I just want to capture information, so I don’t worry about spelling, grammar, a highlight that spills onto the next sentence, etc. Because the paperwhite keyboard is rather unresponsive, it often eats a few letters here or there. As long as I can understand myself, I don’t bother to change it.

When I finish a book, I start on another one that is ready and waiting on my kindle. I have a script that emails me a list of books on my goodreads ‘To read’ list ordered by the current kindle price on amazon. I buy everything cheap. If I have a particular book I want to read next, I just buy it regardless. Kindle means no waiting for the postman.

When I have finished writing up my notes, they are automatically published to my website so I can refer to them or share them with people.

For books that I did not purchase via Amazon, for example books provided free by their author, or public domain books, I have to manually open the clippings.txt file from my kindle and copy the highlights and notes out, since amazon does not sync those to its clippings interface (annoyingly, understandably.) I often spend 50p on a public domain book from the kindle store to avoid this