How do you take notes on books you read? Can I improve how I plan to do it?

Historically, I have never really taken notes on stuff I read, just not how I worked. But, as I get wiser in my years I'm realizing there is a lot to be gained from taking notes, especially if I can aggregate my notes/thoughts and review them later.

How are you all doing this?

My thoughts presently are that I have enjoyed rereading books where I wrote my thoughts in the margins, it's easy to see the context of the thought. However, it's very difficult to take those hidden notes and get them into any sort of a "pooled". Ideally I would like to have my notes in digital form, in a fashion where I can review and search them, preferably online.

My current thought is to email myself these notes via Gmail, and to catalog the thoughts/notes as I read with larger sized Post-it notes that I can put in the back of the book.

Improvements? How do you do it?

Syndicate content

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Depends on the book

For me, it depends on the kind of book it is. For self-help books, I use a Circa Junior for taking book notes, dating each page and noting the page number in the margin. Since I get more out of just rereading them, I leave the notes in that form.

For research books, I tend to use Circa Letter-size because I take a LOT of notes. Those I will often transcribe and keep in Devonthink Pro so I can do a search later. (Depending on how in-depth the information is; sometimes I will just scan the page and enter in a few keywords).

Long ago, before Circa, I took notes in letter-sized unlined wire-bound notebooks, most of which I made myself.

(For the mechanics, which I still use, I would put the full bibliographic citation on the first page of the notes for that book, then use a short name (usually the author's last name) for subsequent pages. I would always put the date at the beginning of a note-taking session and note the page number for every note. That last is especially useful when my notes were too cryptic for me to decipher and I had to go back to the source. When using the blank notebooks, I would just draw a line between notes. With the Circa, I just skip a line. How's that for detail? ;D )

A friend of mine was a book reviewer (for novels) for a long time and she would usually fold a letter-sized sheet of paper in half and keep it in the back of the book handy to make notes as she read. However, she has very tiny handwriting and could fit a lot of information on one page.

Taking a step back

Whenever I ask or am asked questions like this I try to take a step back and see things in a wider perspective. For my own note-taking on books I considered my reading process. Two eyars ago I was assessed as dyslexic. Though this does not interfer with my love of reading; I read slowly actually very slowly (being in the 32th percentile) whereas my comprehension is high actually very high (being in the 97th percentile).

Before I went to an educational pyschologist for an assessment I read a couple of books that changed my perspective on note-taking. The first was Mortimer J Adler's "How to Read a Book", which although originally written in 1940 is still in print today. The second was James W Sire's "How to Read Slowly", which appears to be available in a variety of editions but its world view may be offensive to some here. Both books bring to the fore the issue that Studio717 raises in that each genre of literature is different and requires a different approach.

This rather depressing quote appears in the preface to Adler's book.

The average high-school graduate has done a great deal of reading, and if he goes on to college he will do a great deal more; but he is likely to be a poor and incompetent reader. (Note that this holds true of the average student, not the person who is a subject for special remedial treatment.) He can follow a simple piece of fiction and enjoy it. But put him up against a closely written exposition, a carefully and economically stated argument, or a passge requiring critical consideration, and he is at a loss. It has been shown, for instance, that the average high-school student is amazingly inept at indicting the central thought of a passage, or the levels of emphasis and subordination in an argument or exposition. To all intents and purposes he remains a sixth-grade reader till well along in college."

He is quoting from an article in "Atlantic Monthly" originally written in 1931 by Professor James Mursell of Columbia University's Teachers College. The situation hadn't changed by the time Adler first wrote his book (in 1940) or by the time he revised it (in 1972). The situation probably hasn't improved now (in 2007). Indeed here in the UK I suspct that the situation has degenerated further.

Reading is such a fundamental skill. I'd start with looking at the reading process and from that adapt the note-taking.

using an index card for notes

I like to scribble in the margins of the books I read, and I agree with you that it's fun when you re-read and see your previous thoughts. Lately I've also been using an index card as a bookmark and taking notes on that as well. Right now I'm focusing on writer style and techniques as I'm spending some time at a writing colony this summer. When you're done you can either file the card away in whatever system you use, or just tuck it into the book for the next time you read it.

Annotations and such

One reason I am so looking forward to a good e-ink reader is the ability to add in annotations - and then hide them, if I so choose. In the past, when I have (rarely) highlighted or written in a book, I notice that on rereading I don't read the unhighlighted parts as closely as I'd like. In other words, I am missing out on a 'new reading' because the old one is so in-my-face.

That said, years ago I bought a book from the late 19th century that had lots of tiny tiny handwritten notes in the margins. The fellow who had first gone through the book had written things like "This is bunkum!" and actually made the book more interesting to me. So there are two sides to the issue. :)

The few books I've felt that I just had to mark up, I've actually gone out and bought a second copy so I could still read one version unmarked. Crazy, I know.

Here's an interesting

Here's an interesting article about annotating books via Gmail:

Digital Approaches

I have recently given up on using Office OneNote to take reading notes. Mostly because it is such a hog.I liked the way it looked, but I spent more time "arranging the deck chairs" than actually working.
Plan B is to use GMail, or another web app so that I can generate tag clouds of my notes.
The down side is that I hate transcribing notes. It seems like a waste of time. I plan on looking at wikis, if only for the ability to link between works.

You might try TiddlyWiki

It uses simple enough tools that you should be able to run it on any platform and small enough to keep on a thumb drive.

I tried it and found it useful but then my work changed such that I can no longer bring my personal drive to work (corporate security issues).

Good luck
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)


You're making my Librarian senses tingle. You actually write in books!?

Earth calling Orton

The English playwright Joe Orton was fined by Islington Council for writing in library books. After his death the value of those books increased in value astronomically. There is some sense in writing in books.

I read elsewhere that medical missionary and Bach scholar Albert Schwizter used to write copious notes in the margins of books. He would give away books from his library to visitors. There was apparently a tremendous wealth of knowledge and analysis in those notes.

The value of the books that I write my own marginal notes in won't increase in value other than to me as the book then becomes truly mine.

Only on books I own

My Mom was a librarian for a while, and she did it too, so I figure I'm in good company (she only did it in books she owned).

Taking notes without taking notes

I use Bookdarts. These are particularly useful to me as an aspiring author because I can easily mark items while reading for pleasure. For classes & novel research, I type up all the items I've marked, including the page numbers, them remove the darts. However, I also order darts in bulk so that I can leave them in a lot of books without fear of running out. :)

Levenger also sells a version of darts called PagePoints.

How about...

... the little 1x2 inch size of Post-It notes ?

I love those. I can bookmark a page and write a note -- all without defacing the book.
"I think the surest sign that there is intelligent life out there in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." (Calvin and Hobbes/Bill Waterson)

I mind-map them

I college I'd write some notes in the margins of textbooks -- especially boring ones -- as this would force me to read the material! After learning about mind-mapping, though, I go that route. The notes are naturally pooled together in one place, and I don't have to worry as much about space constraints or keeping them linear. I redraw/flesh out the map when finished, or even transcribe it into a narrative if that would make more sense in the future.

As to providing context, I will admit to still making small notations in the margin, but now they just refer to a branch of the mind map. And the whole map either gets filed on the bookshelf or a dedicated notebook. I tend to make notes mostly for non-fiction, though -- when I'm reading for pleasure, I don't like to break the flow of the act of reading, if that makes any sense.