Taking quick notes for books

I love my book notes system. I almost always ask fellow bookworms how they keep track of what they’ve learned from the books they’ve read, and their suggestions have helped me put together a pretty darn good system. Here’s how I work:

Capture: I usually read books in front of my computer so that I can use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to take notes while I read. I speak the page number and the quote I want to remember. Using speech recognition to write book notes means that I don’t have to take my hands off the book, and I don’t have to perch it precariously on my lap as I try to type in quotes. Speech recognition is reasonably accurate, and I love breezing through a passage at some 300 words a minute. This is awesome. This is so much better than my old way of doing things. I suspect this also does good things for my ability to recall important points. When I finish a page, I correct the text that’s already there.

If I’m not at my computer, I record notes into a portable voice recorder. If I’m feeling lucky, I get DNS to auto-transcribe the recordings. This doesn’t usually work. Background noise messes up the recognition. But it’s usually good enough to let me find the pages again. Or–shhh–sometimes I dogear pages. ;)

Organize: I copy the book notes into a plain text file that uses the Org outline mode. I organize my booknotes with the titles as second-level headings, and I sometimes tag the books with keywords.

Store: I copy my book notes onto my Nintendo DS, where I can use
the ReadMore homebrew application to quickly review my book notes on
the subway.

Review: Every so often, I whiz through the books in my book notes system so that I can keep the key points fresh in my mind. This review is also a good opportunity to pass a book’s idea on to someone else.

What would make this even better? A Nintendo or Palm text editor that understood Org files would be just amazing.  Integration with LibraryThing would be nice, too, so that people could easily find out which books to discuss with me. Even without those pieces, though, my system works really really well for me.

What’s your system?

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  • Carl Sia

    Hmm, while I can’t claim to be as organized in the way I read, I do take notes of particularly interesting titles and segments therein. Microsoft OneNote and Outlook 2003 do a great job for me (especially since I try to get a hold of digital versions, making verbatim clipping easy; no dog-ears too!) ;-)

    Most of the time I let my brain-drive save the interesting parts for me; it’s always nice (and to some, impressive), to be able to quote lines from memory.

    Maybe I can help with your “capture” stage by proposing a technological solution – DNSP depends heavily on a good mic, so I suggest you purchase a headset with a noise-cancelling microphone. You’ll see a sharp increase in recognition accuracy. I’ve tried several voice-recognition systems with different hardware over the years (starting from Creative’s VoiceAssist to Voice Commander in my iPaq today), and we’re still a long way from Star Trek. :-)

    I’ve seen some exotic equipment like throat mics and bone-conduction earloops (now for sale in Park Square 1 Makati) which seem to hold a lot of promise, but for a surefire solution, get a Plantronics headset. I’ve used the DSP-400 at home and at work and I can attest to the improved audio and speech recognition quality thanks to the DSP module and noise-cancelling mic. If you want to be able to use DNSP on the subway, it’s hard to go wrong with the Plantronics Voyager 510 bluetooth headset.

    At any rate, keep reading, and keep sharing! ;-)

  • NaturallySpeaking comes with a decent noise-cancelling headset, so I’ve been using that. It’s been good. =)

    Looks like the PV510 works with Linux. Some people don’t like the flashing blue light, though, so hmm…

  • Carl Sia

    Oooh, it does? I’ve gotten so used to the disc-in-a-box model that it’s a refreshing way to sell stuff. ^_^

    Yep, any headset should work with Linux so long as your Bluetooth stack supports the Headset profile correctly… I’m not sure if A2DP (Bluetooth High Quality Audio) works right though… winky lights or not, the PV510 really gets the job done. You can even get the -SL version which turns any desk phone into a Bluetooth one if you’re as lazy as I am. *laughs*

  • Sami

    hey i cant be that organized but i can do that..anyways, im not really a fanof books so idont actually comprehend what im reading so i go to the internet and see if i see any site that ccan give me quick notes on the book im reading…thanks to ur help i can actually comprehend and pass my accelerated book test at school

  • Reading takes practice, but it really pays off. You might be an audio learner – see if audiobooks do the trick for you.

  • Pingback: Taking book notes | sacha chua :: enterprise 2.0 consultant, storyteller, geek()

  • andresito


    Have you tried taking a picture or webcam of the passage and running ocr instead?

    currently i’m taking notes on text edit, manually I write them or copy-paste.
    for school work, I do it by hand and then take a picture, but no ocr for my handwriting.

    take care,


  • Oh, yes! Check out my new book workflow, using a flatbed scanner and Tesseract OCR.