Book workflow

David Seah asked people how they process books. Here’s what I commented:

I read a _lot_ of books, and I frequently refer other people to books that match their interests. When I do so, I love being able to point people to the exact page or quote they should check out, or to send them a summary of the key points in each book. I also enjoy giving books away.

Detailed book notes and a good workflow make this easy and convenient.

ACQUISITION: I often go on reading sprints, checking out lots of books on one topic from the library. Reading many books on one area allows me to read them faster, because many books contain fluff and things I’ve already read in other books. All I’m doing when I’m scanning a non-fiction book is looking for the nuggets of information or insight that are unique to that book.

READING: I keep track of pages with interesting passages on them. Sometimes, if I’m diligent, I use slips of paper as bookmarks. Most of the times, I dogear the lower corner of the page, folding the small dogear towards the side of the page I want to remember, or double-folding the corner if I like both sides of the page. Again, I’m just scanning for “the good stuff.”

CAPTURE: After I finish a stack of books, I scan relevant passages into my computer. I usually do this on Sundays or on days before my books are due. I review each page to see whether I still want to capture the information on it, and then I place the book face-down on a flatbed scanner and scan passages with the 600 dpi line-art setting required by OCR. All of the images get saved into a directory. Sometimes I’ll dictate passages to my computer instead, using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to transcribe.

TRANSCRIPTION: I use the free and open source Tesseract optical character recognition program. It’s pretty darn good. I’ve written a batch file that processes all of my pending images, filing finished images in one directory and text in the other.

ORGANIZATION: When I find free time, I review the transcribed text, narrowing it down to just the passages I wanted, and organizing items into more of an outline. I make any TODO items for follow-up actions, too. I also take that time to think of who else might be interested in a book or excerpts from it, and I recommend the book to those people. (I picked up this tip from Love is the Killer App – handy!) All of these notes go into a somewhat structured text file on my hard disk, where quotes are indexed by books and page numbers, and tagged by topic. When I remember, I write down the ISBN and other edition information as well.

REVIEW: Every so often, I flip through random book notes. Handy way to refresh my memory and think of other connections the books remind me to make.

I’ve started copying my book notes into a custom book-notes management system I’m building. That book-notes management system also automatically builds my reading history based on the books I’ve checked out (handy because I’m too lazy to update sites like LibraryThing ;) ), and eventually it’ll help me see which books are in which stage of processing.

One thing that would make this even better would be for me to figure out what to do during book-scanning so that I don’t get distracted but I still use that time productively. ;) My hands are occupied because I’m scanning books, and I find that if I’m reading something else (either online or offline), I get distracted and I forget to finish scanning my books. Maybe listening to great music or to a podcast will do the trick. =)

Another thing that would make this process even better would be to hook it into a web-based book review system, which I may build into that system I’m putting together. That way, I can easily share my book recommendations.

The book “How to Read a Book” has many tips on choosing the appropriate approach for books and processing them effectively.

OCR works really well for me. Try it out!

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  • Quinn

    Only got around to skimming this now. WOW. Thanks for sharing, this breakdown of your flow is awesome!

  • wow! this is very helpful Sacha. Thanks!

  • andresito

    While scanning you could read your book notes on the screen (magnified)

    I’ve been listening to an audiobook while doing cleaning chores, it works for me.

    The audiobook is about finding yourself;

    Btw, I took notes on the computer right away, but I own the books or these come from blogs.

    Having a daily routine, say 15 min of scanning, note taking, etc… could also work!

    ^^ cheers

  • andresito

    while scanning you can use text-to-speech to listen to your book notes,
    sometimes these sound hilarious ^o^ lol

  • You should look at DevonTHINK. It is for OS X, but it is ideally structured for the types of notes you produce. It will automatically categorize them and find relationships between different notes based on semantics.

    I haven’t been able to find something similar for windows.

  • Thanks for the suggestion! I like checking out how different programs do things. =)

    The Remembrance Agent was pretty awesome for suggested relationships. Zemanta tries to do something similar for Firefox, and I’ve heard good things about Zotero as a citation manager, too.

    I don’t mind using my brain for associations, though. Brains are better at that than at remembering exact details. I also enjoy having random book notes come up every so often… I find randomness often as useful – or even more useful! – than similarity. =)

  • Linditt

    I don’t know how I stumble on your site but I’m so glad I did. This post is awesome!

    How you process your books is so liberating for me. I’d always photocopy passages that I want to maintain and I’ll end up with stacks of papers which I find it hard to categorize and file.

    I’m not a techkie person (I’m in finance), so I’ll start out with Tesseract first and hopefully I could go on to see how I could organize and manage these information. You inspire me to get to know technologies! :)

  • I hope it will help you tweak the way you harvest what you’ve learned from books! =)

    If you’re on Microsoft Windows, you might want to try using Microsoft OneNote to organize your notes and scanned images. Evernote is a cross-platform application for doing similar things, too. This will make it easy to search inside images, too.

  • Wonderful ideas Sacha! I also fold the lower part of the page where I found something interesting, this way the book does not look bad, and I don’t need thousands of slips of paper. But I’m not (usually) as thorough as you are… except for my last two reads, one about public speaking for geeks (will review it soon in my blog) and the Chicago style manual for theses, which I’m reading currently. For these two I’ve set aside two small notebooks to jot notes about what I need to remember and what I need to use when needed. It will also come handy for the review process.



  • Greendiod

    Hi Sacha. Good tips! But given the amount of  work you  put in your flow, I wouildn’t say you’re lazy!!

    Would you mind sharing the script you use for the Transcription phase?

    • Darn, I no longer use Tesseract since I now draw or dictate my notes. You can find Tesseract at . Basic usage:  tesseract myscan.png out

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