In early 2023 I decided to change my approach to reading by taking multiple levels of detailed notes on each non-fiction book that I read. I undertook this endeavour because I realised that, for numerous reasons, I had very limited retention of what I was reading and that many of the books on my bookshelf were essentially expensive paperweights. I’ve found that taking notes every 1-2 chapters in a stream of consciousness format with summarisation steps at the end to be the best approach to retention and idea synthesis.
This approach necessitates a larger time commitment than just reading normally, however the tradeoff between increased time commitment and increased retention and idea synthesis is heavily biased towards retention and synthesis. My suspicion is that most of this benefit is due to the spaced repetition and summarising effects of forcing myself to take detailed notes and then synthesise them. This is opposed to the value of having detailed notes in the first place though the benefit of having these may come later.
From a workflow perspective there are still improvements that could be made. I’ve identified a few challenging areas where I don’t have a solution and have tried three different cadences to writing notes. Two particular challenges I’m trying to find solutions for are; being able to highlight and quote sections of the completed book with page numbers efficient, and directly copying/reproducing diagrams to add to the notes.
When I look at how I spend my waking hours one activity stands head and shoulders above the rest. I read, a lot. And I mean a lot. Typically I’ll go through somewhere on the order of 50-70 books per year as well as numerous reports, articles and blogs that I consume voraciously. I’m an information whore to put it lightly, it’s actually a bit of a problem since it gets in the way of doing other things but that’s neither here nor there in the context of this experiment.
When I took the time to look at my bookcase which is coming up on close to 800 titles now it struck me, how much of what I’ve read do I actually recall? Can I point to a particular book and say this was how it changed my thinking? Can I quote any of their passages? If I wanted to cite a particular idea and where it came from how would I do this? How many of the books on my bookshelf were worth what I paid for them? I mean heck, can I even remember what the actual book was about?
The answer to each of these questions was predominately negative. I have no idea what some of the central premises or ideas are of many of the books I’ve read beyond vague handwavy explanations.This even includes the ones that I recall as being particularly profound or influential, I recall little specific about them.
To put it bluntly, I’ve been consuming the written word but none of it has been sticking, the closest analogy I can find here is that I’m basically an information sieve, concepts and ideas were entering but the majority of them were just frittering away like grains of sand.
So I asked myself why this was occurring, why could I not recall any information about what I’ve been reading? Why could I not recall any of the key concepts of any of the books that I’ve read? A simple answer came out.
Even though I’m reading “hard” non-fiction books, filled with big ideas, interesting concepts and an incredible wealth of knowledge and experience I’ve mostly been reading as entertainment not as learning. For me, I’ve trained myself into reading being a form of productivity porn. Productivity porn is particularly dangerous because it makes you feel as though you’re accomplishing something when in reality you’ve just been entertaining yourself.
Which, when you lay it out like that it strikes me as a particularly silly idea, why on earth am I reading hard books for entertainment when I could be reading actually enjoyable books for this purpose. Or, better yet, going out and doing something actually fun and adventurous.
I want to change this, I want to be able to understand how the material that I’m reading is changing my thinking and be able to draw the central ideas of the authors into a broader approach
In the interests of the KISS principle I came up with the following simple approach:
- Read good books
- Write notes about these books
- Put the notes into my Obsidian PKB and try to link concepts together
There are no further steps. That’s it.
I didn’t want to go down the pathway of using complex tools and machinery to automatically summarise materials for me, I know that AI and GPT style models are all the rage at the moment but my ultimate goal here was understanding and integration of the information not on saving time. Explicitly, taking longer to do something but ending up understanding it better is the absolutely correct tradeoff to make in this situation. Ultimately, if I’m going to spend a set amount of time reading each year I want that time to be well spent.
I’ve tried three different methods so far:
- Writing notes immediately as I read the book
- Reading an entire book and then going back to write notes
- Reading small sections, 1-2 chapters, then going back, rereading and creating notes as I go
Of these three approaches the easiest, most natural and most successful approach has been the third option, reading small sections and then going back to write notes about what I’ve just read. Before discussing this further I’ll cover the two options that weren’t successful. Throughout this process I used physical books only and didn’t use e-books or other electronic forms which may have changed my viewpoint.
Writing Notes Immediately - I found that this didn’t work for me from a reading viewpoint. Chopping and changing between writing notes and reading a page is heavily disruptive, there’s a lot of context switching involved as well as decision making. Flow is an after thought in this case. You in essence need to make a decision as to whether to write a note about something for each sentence and paragraph that you read. I also found that it completely killed my enjoyment of reading. While I do want to retain more of what I read, reading is still primarily an enjoyable activity for me and I’d like to keep it that way. For these reasons, this approach was discarded.
Writing Notes After Finishing - This was actually the one that I tried first, in this approach I would read a book fully, just as I usually would. Once I’d finished a book I would then go and try and write up some thoughts and notes on the book itself. The benefits of this approach is that you can tackle the authors complete argument when you’re writing the notes and since many authors often place supporting points after they’re first introduced it gives you greater context as to what to write down. You can approach the authors argument in its entirety rather than piecemeal. The downside of this approach is that it is incredibly burdensome, The notes that I write might extend out into the thousands of words and sitting down and going through an entire book again to draft these was overwhelming. I found that I procrastinated writing the notes, the notes were poor quality and I didn’t enjoy the process at all.
This leads me to the final approach which I’m still using, creating notes in sections every 1-2 chapters. In this approach I will read naturally for a period of time, at most I allow myself ~60 pages here or roughly two chapters but shorter is better from a note taking perspective. I look for natural stopping points in the my attention span here and don’t force myself to continue beyond this. After a few hours or the next day I will go back to the beginning of the section that I was just reading and aim to read it (mostly skimming) again while taking detailed notes, I’m not reading it closely, I’d call it 50% attention in this case, but it’s close enough that aided with my memory of the sections I’ve already read that I’m able to zero in on the most important part for note taking purposes. This may or may not shock you but there is an incredible amount of filler in most books.
I think this third approach has been successful when the other two have not because it marries the best of both worlds. I still read the text as I ordinarily would which means I still get the enjoyment of reading from it, but likewise I don’t read too far ahead of my notes such that writing the notes feels burdensome. The short turn around also acts as a form of spaced repetition in this case which further accelerates the process and makes recall and drafting a lot easier. You do miss out on the “overall” theme of the book which does detract from the summarisation stage but you do still get to summarise at the chapter level and you can add in a general summary to your notes as desired.
Actually writing the notes is a lot more challenging than you’d think, there are challenges both from the physical form factor as well, the challenge of summarising someone else’s argument and creating detailed outlines. From a physical perspective, unfortunately many books are quite small and don’t hold themselves open easily and since I aim to write notes in a digital form I typically need both hands for typing.
What I’ve landed on in this case is to use a book holder (I just purchased one for $20 off Amazon) that can hold the book open for me, this is placed in front of my computer right below the screen so that I can see both in this situation.
To help with summarising someone else’s argument I start by writing a stream of consciousness bullet point list as I’m going through the section. Once I’ve finished this outline I’ll go back to the top, read them all and then try to write a one paragraph summary of the chapter and the arguments made within it as a whole. This final stage lets me round it off so to speak, I’ve now got a brief summary (which since I wrote it I’m more likely to retain it) as well as bullet points and a link to my other notes. At this point, if the concept is familiar and I’ve already included it into the PKB I’ll create a link to that other work or, if I consider it particularly interesting I might create a new separate note to think about the point further.
The final steps occur once I finish the book as a whole. Here I write two new sections:
- A general summary of the book as a whole, no more than 1-2 paragraphs trying to capture the core ideas
- A separate section as to what I personally took away from the book which is named “How did this change my thinking”
As you can see there are actually five entirely distinct note taking steps here.
- Stream of consciousness bullet points
- Chapter Summary
- Book Summary
- Personal Learning’s
- Create new PKB notes as required for any concepts or ideas that need a section outside of the book I just read
To make it easier to capture all of these I use the Templater plugin for Obsidian with a couple predefined templates built in to wrap it all together.
Whilst this may seem like overkill I’ve found that for the books I’ve read that this approach has definitely helped with retention so far.
Since I’m interested in reading and data I’m also interested in data about my reading. To make life easier here I use three tools:
- Goodreads - Used to store ratings as well as when I read the book
- Zotero - Used to store bibtex compatible citations about the material making it easier to generate bibliographies and citations later.
- Obsidian - Used as the all purpose PKB in this case where I dump the notes and link everything together.
Of these, the one I don’t like the most is Goodreads and I’m actively interested in finding a solution here.
Acquiring Books to Read
Since I’m now taking detailed notes of the books that I’ve been reading it’s been leading me to question my previous book purchasing habits which mostly just involve grabbing physical books and leaving them on my bookcase for eternity. Instead, I’ve shifted almost entirely to using my local library in this situation, whilst not perfect, it doesn’t have an unlimited selection, since I live in a major metropolitan area it is actually pretty good and has a decent back catalogue as well. The side benefit of using the library is that I’m saving significant amounts of money which is a nice touch. My local library has 6 different campuses and you can select a book and have it delivered to your local one which usually takes 1-2 days to happen. From here it’s an easy pick up since my library is a five minute walk away which is quite fortunate for me.
I’ve been thinking more about e-books as well, more on that a little later, but as of yet there’s still not a major compelling case for me in this situation. Something to think about more fully in this situation.
Since I started writing detailed notes I’ve read ~9 books in the past six weeks and written detailed notes of between 2,000 and 5,000 words on each of them in this situation. I’ve found that my overall engagement with the books has increased substantially and I can recall more of what I’ve read. This represents roughly 30,000 words of note taking, predominately stream of consciousness and a time commitment of approximately 50-100 hours (this is just an estimate).
There is an additional time commitment to the process and sometimes it can be a bit of a slog, in particular, since reading is often entertainment but I don’t let myself get too far ahead of my notes there can be periods where I would like to read more on a book but it would cause further pain. In this situation, I just read a different book, typically fiction, that I don’t care about taking notes for in this case until I can get caught back up again. My current estimate is that I spend approximately 2/3 of that time reading and 1/3 of the time on note taking which is an acceptable tradeoff for me currently.
Overall, I would definitely recommend taking notes on your reading.
The current workflow isn’t perfect so far, in particular it isn’t very good at:
- Direct quotes including page level citations
- Diagrams, equations and tables
- Highlighting particular passages
- Book not staying flat and turning the pages
Furthermore, once the notes have been written they sort of go into the void in this situation and I need to actively go back and review the book notes in this case rather than have software presenting them to me. I did consider a spaced repetition option like Anki in this stage, however this would introduce another reviewing/writing step that is simply too much overhead for me to want to commit to in this case. Anki bankruptcy is a real thing in this situation and taking the time to create proper flash cards is a bit too painful in this case.
For diagrams, equations and tables my only real option in this case is to recreate the relevant artefact in this case and put it into my notes. Whilst I’m trying to get better at using Inkscape for this it still isn’t particularly easy in this situation to mock something up, particularly when the chart needs to be accurate in this case, also. I think using a drawing tablet here would be a good approach in this situation. I’m never going to go and rewrite a table using the markdown syntax, it’s just too painful in this case. It would be nice to be able to snap a quick photo in this case and have it cleaned up automatically for me.
Direct quoting is something I’m also not the best at, here I would need to rewrite the quote, attribute it, note the page number and so on and so forth. I’m hopeful I might be able to get away with a macro and template in this case but no luck so far on this one from an experimentation perspective.
Highlighting is also something that would be helpful in this case, particularly with quoting and with creating the notes as I go through them on the first read. Since I read library books usually and I don’t even like defacing my own books I don’t have any good options in this case.
When writing notes I need to use both hands to type which means I need some way of propping the book open, typically this is on a flat surface in this case. Unfortunately, a lot of books are so small that to prop them open flat damages them and they tend to use heavy metal clips etc to hold the pages open which can damage the pages as well as making them hard to turn. I need to find more solutions here.
Things I’d Like to Try
One option which would solve some of the problems is to shift my reading to an e-reader tablet like the Remarkable in this case. In this case I think I would be able to use the tablet to quickly generate sketches (solving the diagramming problem) as well as highlighting material and quotes (could I directly save a quote here?) and since it’s a flat device I wouldn’t have the issue when writing my notes up more fully.
However, I don’t know how to get books from the library on to the Remarkable in this case. I know the Remarkable supports epub in this case but I don’t know if my library supports epub in this situation. Furthermore, I don’t know if I’d like reading on the e-ink screen. There is also the cost element in this situation as well, the Remarkable goes for about $470 AUD in this situation as well as an additional $120-$200 for the marker in this case. Call it $700 total. If I’m unable to borrow books from the library I’ll need to purchase epub friendly ebooks which will add additional cost in this situation (or alternatively try to use something like Calibre in this case). There’s also the matter of needing to charge the tablet too.
I think in this situation, whilst it would work well for PDFs in this case, the usecase is a lot more expensive and breaks down for books. It’s often a lot easier (ironically) to find a physical copy of something than a digital one too. Looking at it, the main epub format that’s sold is actually DRM protected through Adobe DRM in this case which the Remarkable may not support here. The Kindle Scribe is another option here too.
A better approach I think here is to use a tablet like the Wacom Intuos which retails for $179 for the bluetooth version in Australia ($99 for non bluetooth). Something to think about more fully here. I think in this situation I’d likely need to change my workflow towards Mac from Linux in this case which I’ve been contemplating doing for awhile anyway in order to access the better quality of applications on mac.