Taking book notes

It turned out that our newest team member, Tom Plaskon, is also a bookworm. Over lunch last Wednesday, we chatted about how we keep track of what we’re learning from books. My system hasn’t changed that much sinceI described it in February, but I thought I’d post an updated blog post about it, just in case writing about it prompts ideas.

How I get books:

I still read lots of books. I usually order books from the Toronto Public Library system or pull them off the library shelves when I go on a library run, but sometimes I’ll pick up books from the bookstore or order them online. I occasionally get book recommendations from other people, too.

I tend to read in sprints, focusing on a single subject. I’m currently revisiting personal finance, and I’ve read about comics and graphic novels, sketching, storytelling, writing, leadership, time management, Javascript, CSS, relationships, communication, management, consulting, entrepreneurship, photography, cooking, presentation skills, education, reading, economics, parenting (yes, I read my mom’s parenting books when she was raising me – made for an interesting childhood!), social networking, quarter-life crises, career planning, learning, creativity, self-defense, exercise, romances (particularly classic Regency ones) gardening, and other topics that slip my mind at the moment. Reading in sprints allows me to get through books quickly (few non-fiction books are packed with new ideas) and see the interconnections between ideas in books. Sometimes I’ll go for variety when I’m raiding the library shelves.

This is a pattern of reading that practically requires a well-stocked public library, as there’s no way I’m going to spend all that money doing a reading sprint by buying books from Chapters or Amazon. I’d be limited by my book budget and I’d end up with too many books full of too much filler. Using the public library allows me to get value from books I might not ordinarily buy and books that are mostly fluff except for one or two good insights. (Or books that have one good idea and just keep hammering it in.)

How I read books

While I’ll slow down and enjoy a dense, well-written book, most books are worth cursory scans. Sometimes I’ll look at the table of contents to get the lay of the land. Other times, I’ll just plunge right into it, skimming the book for good quotes, interesting insights, or good explanations.

I read books on the subway, over breakfast or dinner, while walking (except across intersections), on evenings and weekends, and whenever I can steal a moment. I try to always have a book or two in my bag.

How I take notes

The first step is to mark the passages I want to keep. I don’t like writing in books (and absolutely abhor the idea of writing in a library book!), so I have to keep track of the passages I want to put into my book notes system. I must confess that I’ve resorted to dogearing pages. Post-It flags feel wasteful and torn slips of paper are inconvenient. I’d be happy to switch to a better method for remembering pages if it was something I could do while walking around (rules out scanning text with a digitizing pen) and it allowed me to keep track of any number of pages (rules out bookmarks, unless I carry a whole stack of them).

After I’ve gone through a book once, it’s time to put the passages into my book notes system. If I have time, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate the book details, page numbers, and relevant passages to my computer. It’s fun, it reinforces my memory, and it helps me train the speech recognition engine. If I’m pressed for time, I scan the relevant pages, then and use Tesseract Optical Character Recognition to convert the scans into text.

I currently keep my book notes in a large text file with a little markup to make it easier for Emacs to display it as an outline. (Hooray org-mode!) Each book is an outline item, and each quotation starts with the page number. I also add my own notes.

How I review my books

The human brain is good at associative memory. When a conversation topic reminds me of something I’d read, I can usually come up with a few titles or keywords from the quotations. My book notes allow me to send not only the book details but also the relevant quote, which helps other non-bookwormish people zero in on the part they might want to check out. So far, my text file has been working well.

I occasionally review my book notes by flipping through my book notes on the computer or on my Nintendo DS, jumping to a random note, or searching for certain keywords. I also reread particularly good books to see if I’ll get even more insight this time around. This helps me keep the content fresh, and it also prompts me to think about who I know would benefit from the book I’m reviewing.

How I can make this system better

I think I’ll start using LibraryThing to keep track of the books I’ve read. This allows me to take advantage of social recommendations. I used to use Amazon for that, but it’s also nice to run into fellow bookworms with similar interests and to see what else they’re reading.

It might be good to capture diagrams neatly. I’ve got the scanner, so I just need to work out a good image storage thing.

I want to be able to link related quotations and books with each other. Blog posts would be a good way to do that. I just need to make sure I save my post locally, too.

I need to think about which new books are worth acquiring. =) There are a few presentation-related books I’m going to order (Back of the Napkin, Presentation Zen, Slideology).

2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Nintendo DS? Please tell me you have an article about running emacs on a DS that I missed. Pretty please.

  • Hail fellow bookworm. Just like print still seems best for reading, I prefer note-taking on paper. Like the book, it is handy in all conditions, and no complications. Then of course I blog a book review — this lets me summarize the book in my own head and share it with others. Often I will put a link to my blog’s review at LibraryThing. Lots of readers come visiting. Cheers.

  • Seth: Nope, no Emacs on my DS yet (although rumor has it that you can run Linux if you have a special memory cartridge). I’m just using ReadMore to read a plain text file. =) (Sometimes I use Moonshell or DSOrganize, too.)

    John: Ooh, that’s a good idea. I should post more structured book reviews and then take advantage of cross-links. I sometimes take notes on paper – I like making mindmaps – but I type/dictate/scan faster than I handwrite. =)

  • John, I love that idea of linking to book summaries on LibraryThing. You should both check out Shelfari. It’s more more visually pleasing than LibraryThing!

  • One problem with Shelfari is its practice of astroturfing. See the article in Wikipedia on Shelfari — it documents this practice. I left a link earlier, but I think your spam trap caught it.

    Is astroturfing a wayward cousin of technology evangelism?

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  • For casual note-taking, I’m afraid I just dog-ear the pages I might be interested in. Then when I get time on the computer, I open the book at the dog-eared pages and type the bits into a text file. Sometimes I’ll open to a dog-eared page and fail to find what it was that interested me. That’s a good thing — it serves as a filter. If a dog-eared page can stand the test of time, it’s probably worth quoting.

    If I start reading a book that I expect will have many juicy bits (Bill Bryson’s “History of Everything” comes immediately to mind), I’ll recycle a blank junk mail envelope as a book mark, and write headlines and page numbers on it.

    Thanks for the LibraryThing tip. I’m importing 106 books from my List of Recently-Read Books. I expect to reach the 200 limit for the free account fairly quickly. I’ll look into Shelfari, too.

  • I’ve fallen in love with Book Darts for marking up the books. http://bookdarts.com

    I have a bunch of the little tins around the house in close proximity to my reading spots.


    • Oooh, that’s pretty. There’s a store nearby. I should try them. =)

  • Hello Sacha,

    Just found your blog through your post titled, Setting up your Drupal development environment. And when I looked around I loved what I found. I also have similar interests as you. I am a web designer who absolutely adores books (mostly fiction but I do read good amount of non-fiction and programming books). I am also a Drupal fan. My blog runs on Drupal. I also take extensive notes while reading programming books.

    For this I generally prefer reading ebooks on screen since taking notes is so much easier. Just copy and paste. I use notepad++ to take notes in simple .txt format with little formating.

    Anyway just wanted to tell you, this is great blog. keep up the Good work.


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  • hello fellow booklover…you just gave me a nice tip on marking ideas on books. why haven’t i thought of that?! thanks for the tips!