How to Take Useful Notes on Books

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“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember,” said Cicero. Indeed. One key reason to keep a commonplace book is to store notes on your reading. Those notes become a personally-curated reference collection—and a continuing source of inspiration.

Beyond that, taking notes on your reading changes you from a passive consumer of information to an active creator of ideas. This is especially true when you write responses to what you read and make plans to act on an author’s suggestions.

The question is how to begin. What kind of notes on reading are most useful? Ultimately you’ll answer that question for yourself. Following are some options that are specifically tailored to nonfiction books.

ANNOTATE, MARINATE AND REVIEW

Shane Parrish of Farnam Street reads over 150 books each year and blogs about many of them. His note-taking process is this:

  • Read the front matter—preface, the table of contents, and inside jacket.
  • Glance over the index.
  • Decide whether to read the book.
  • Mark up the book—circle words to look up, star key points, underline interesting passages, list questions, note connections, and write comments in the margins.
  • Summarize each chapter with a few bullet points.
  • Writing on a blank sheet of paper, explain the core ideas of the book to yourself.

Essentially, Shane says, he’s taking these steps to “engage in a conversation with the author.”

Shane then puts the book away and waits at least one week before returning to it. At that time, he reviews all his handwritten notes:

If something still strikes my interest, I write a note in the first few pages of the book, in my own words, on the topic. Often this is a summary but increasingly it’s ways to apply the knowledge. I index this to the page number in the book.

Finally, he takes selected quotations and copies them into his commonplace book.

For more on this topic from Shane, see How to Retain More of What You Read.

INDEX KEY TOPICS

I don’t know whether Tim Ferriss’s interview with Maria Popova of Brain Pickings went viral, but surely it came close. Brain Pickings has over a million monthly readers, and Maria publishes two or three posts daily. What’s more, she mostly curates offline sources—that is, books.

Maria described her process at 39 minutes into the interview:

On the very last page of each book, which is blank, usually…I create an alternate index. So I basically list out, as I’m reading, the topics and ideas that seem to be important and recurring in that volume. And then next to each of them I start listing out the page numbers where they occur. And on those pages I’ve obviously highlighted the respective passage and have a little sticky tab so that I can find it. It’s basically an index based not on key words…but based on key ideas.

I suggest copying these indexes into your commonplace book. This brings the contents of many books into a single place, allowing you to compare, contrast, and make connections.

LIST BIG IDEAS

Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business and The First 20 Hours: How to Learning Anything Fast! writes masterful book summaries. His approach is unique:

My book notes are different from many of the book summaries you’ll find on the web. Instead of following the structure of the book in question, we’ll isolate and examine the key ideas and themes that make the book useful. Along the way, I’ll tell you how I actually apply the ideas.

For examples, see Josh’s summary of Getting Things Done by David Allen and Bit Literacy by Mark Hurst.

This works well, though it requires time and careful thinking to distill an entire book to its big ideas. You might want to save this strategy for your favorite books.

CREATE CHECKLISTS

I often quote Seth Godin on how to read: “The recipe that makes up just about any business book can be condensed to just two or three pages. The rest is the sell. The proof. The persuasion.” Based on this idea, Seth offers a three-point reading program:

  • Set a goal to change three behaviors based on what you read.
  • Highlight “marching orders” — the passages that explain how to implement those three changes. Create a checklist of these behaviors on an index card.
  • Share your favorite books and talk to people about your checklists.

I’m sure that The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande also has useful ideas. I’ll let you know as soon as I read the book.

HIGHTLIGHT, COPY, PASTE

When reading ebooks, you can mark them up by underlining, highlighting, and adding notes. I like to copy and paste my highlighted passages into my commonplace book, along with the author’s name and book title.

Copying and pasting sounds simple. But consider what you’re actually doing—distilling thousands of words down to a manageable and useful core of key passages. That’s no mean intellectual feat.

FORGET TECHNIQUE AND JUST WRITE

People like Shane Parrish favor a structured system for taking notes on reading. If that’s not your style, however, take a cue from Peter Elbow, author of Writing With Power—Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process:

If you want to digest and remember what you are reading, try writing about it instead of taking notes. Stop periodically—at the end of each chapter or when something important strikes you—and simply write about what you have read and your reactions to it. This procedure may make you nervous at first because you can’t ‘cover’ as many points or make something as neatly organized as when you take notes. But you will remember more. Perfectly organized notes that cover everything are beautiful, but they live on paper, not in your mind.

Derek Sivers takes this more free-form approach. And his book notes are fun reads in themselves.

P.S. Also check out Michael Hyatt’s downloadable template for taking notes on nonfiction books.