A photo of a notebook, lying open, with handwritten notes covering both pages.

Why I take notes when I read books

It takes longer. But that's a good thing, actually.

"We need a reliable and simple external structure to think in that compensates for the limitations of our brains." Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes.

I occasionally get asked why I take notes when I read. I also occasionally get asked why I then publish those notes here on this website. The answer is relatively simple, and comes in three parts: recall, reference, and understanding.

1: Better recall

I've forgotten most of the books I didn't take notes for.

I haven't forgotten them entirely. I can remember the gist of them. But if you asked me to list the key points or themes of, for example, Thinking Fast and Slow (a book I read maybe ten years ago, long before I started taking notes) versus Where Good Ideas Come From (one of the first books I wrote notes for) then I'm going to do a lot better with the latter.

Like a lot of people raised on the internet from a young age, I have outsourced a lot of my memory to the internet. We often fool oursleves into believing that we know more than we do, and that what we are reading is processed and stored by our brain really efficiently. This is, sadly, not true.

Memory is a bottleneck. I've found that if I want to learn more and learn well, I've got to put work into improving this constraint to get more high quality information into my brain, connect it with other things I've learnt, and improve my recall.

2. Easier to reference

I can find a quote or a summary—for any book I've read—incredibly quickly.

If the previous point was about better internal memory, this point is about better external memory. I use Textexpander quite a lot when working or writing, and typing "xnotes" into my browser bar takes me directly to my website's book notes page.

This means that if I want to use a really good quote about the concept of positioning in a presentation at work, I can just review my notes from:

...and grab a quote directly from any of them. This is also especially useful when talking with others about the ideas or concepts in any given book. If they're interested in what we've discussed, I can point them towards my notes.

3. Better understanding

I've understood the books I've taken notes for far better than the books I didn't.

Writing notes forces me to engage with a text in a way that just reading it doesn't really do. Instead of letting the words flow through my head, I'm vigilant for points and concepts that I think will be worth noting down. This means I'm ultimately more engaged with the text.

When I come to the end of a small section or a main chapter, I need to recall what I've read and summarise it my own words. This has the effect of making me actively internalise the point the author is making. They say you learn things faster when you teach them to others, but at least here you're teaching it to yourself first.

Bonus: web traffic

I wasn't expecting this one, but it's a pleasant bonus. It turns out that a lot of people search for summaries and notes of certain books. The ones that do well often surprise me, and vary from older classics like The Right Stuff to more recent publications like The Tyranny of Merit. My working hypothesis is that I get these (often sustained) jumps in traffic when books are added to school or university curricula or reading lists.

My notes for Fermat's Enigma, written in my Roam Research database

How to take "smart notes"

One of the experts in the field of meta-learning is Sönke Ahrens. Here's what he recommends in his book How to Take Smart Notes:

  1. Take fleeting notes while you read, watch or listen
  2. Be selective with what you note down (especially quotes, don't copy down too many)
  3. Make your notes permanent: connect them, develop them, support them, argue for and against them
  4. Link and transfer and associate between the notes you create
  5. When you come to write, you can structure and build what you write around the notes you have already developed

I don't do as much work on linking my notes or building them into a research resource because I'm not an academic or a researcher and I don't really have time for it. However, I did try it in 2020 when I had a bit more time on my hands and it was surprisingly valuable when it came to writing articles.

My process for taking notes and publishing them

While Ahrens' method is useful, here's what I actually do in practice:

  1. Take notes while reading: a Moleskine notebook (with a Leuchtturm pen loop and a rollerball pen) sit by me whenever I'm reading. I jot things down as I go, usually between sections or chapters, and I make liberal use of headings and bullet points to make things easier to refer back to.
  2. Capture highlights/quotes: I use Readwise to capture highlights with the camera on my phone, which makes the entire process much easier. (I pay a monthly subscription for this service and it's entirely worth it.) I leave a reminder in my notes (e.g. "[q72]" for quote on page 72) to remind me to reinsert them when I'm writing everything up.
  3. Sync highlights to Roam Research: I use Roam because it's what I started using in 2020. (Not everyone likes Roam. Your mileage may vary.) Readwise lets your export to all kinds of places, though, like Notion, Evernote, Obsidian; all the usual suspects.
  4. Type notes up: again, I do this in Roam. This allows me to link notes, and cobble things together. Again, it doesn't need to be Roam. It could be a .txt file, so long as it's kept in a clear file structure. I usually do this at the end of short books, or every ten or so pages of notes for longer books.
  5. Upload notes: once that's all done, I upload my notes to my website along with a short summary, a rating out of 10, and an image of the cover.

But is it worth it for *every* book?

In short, no. I don't really bother with taking notes for fiction. (I think Siddhartha was the only one I ever took notes for. Not entirely sure why.) I also recently read John McPhee's wonderful Oranges without taking notes and I think it would have been pointless to have bothered. I just enjoyed it for its own sake.

I think for fiction and more light-hearted nonfiction the whole point is to sink into that world and experience it. If I were going to take notes on War and Peace I'd draw out an already long process into an eternal one, and likely miss the point in the process.

However, for more business-oriented or technical books, or ones that deal with concepts I'm not familiar with or exploring for the first time, taking notes is an invaluable process that makes reading even more of a joy for me than it already is.

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