Experiment: taking notes while reading

This seems to be a common evolution for non-fiction readers:

  1. A love for reading leads to various fiction books. A thought of reading non-fiction does not enter one’s mind.
  2. Continued love for reading and desire to learn more leads to an occasional non-fiction selection.
  3. Non-fiction starts to dominate the reading list until eventually a fiction book is a rare choice.
  4. The realization that “plowing through” non-fiction in the same fashion as fiction leads to forgetting the content way too easily — some sort of notes / review process is added.
  5. Notes / review process evolves as one gains experience with it.

If you read a lot of non-fiction and haven’t started taking notes, I would highly recommend doing so. It might seem like a daunting task at first, but it is actually not that bad and enhances the overall satisfaction with your reads.

The simplest form of note taking is summarizing the book after you read it. I’ve been doing this for six years and have found it to be very useful. It’s a good way to refresh yourself on what the book was about in case you need to make a recommendation to another reader. Summaries also come in handy when you need information that you know you read about but are not sure which book contains it. Often the summary will remind you which one it was.

I’ve found that doing a summary right after finishing the book is the best way to go about it. Make sure you record it somewhere that you can easily go back to when you need it. Google Docs is good and simple, or you can use something more sophisticated like goodreads.com. I wrote a book site for myself that anyone can create an account on and use: trackmybooks.appspot.com. Goodreads is too noisy / distracting for me for this purpose.

For a couple months now I’ve been running an experiment of taking notes while reading. It is a much more intense and in-depth process than summarizing a book. I’ve used it for three books so far and I am enjoying the process immensely.

What held me back from taking notes while reading was fear that it will prolong the reading time greatly, and make it less enjoyable. However, if you change how you read books and combine it with the constant analysis, review, and questioning of the material it leads to a greater understanding, and greater enjoyment. You really start to “feel” the book instead of passing it through your thoughts. And instead of simply reading the book from start to finish, now I do this:

  • Quickly review the book online either on Amazon or Wikipedia to see what is a point the author is trying to make.
  • Get some quick info on the author and what is the author known for.
  • Look at the table of contents and note the name of each chapter so you familiarize with how the book will flow
  • Now read through each chapter: look at the title, for each paragraph read first and last sentences to see if you get the idea of the paragraph and if it is necessary to dig in more.
  • While doing this, summarize what you are reading in your notes, but in your own words. Ask questions, verify the strong points author tries to make: do you agree or disagree? does the point make sense? what are others saying about it? The actual place where I take notes right now is a simple paper notebook. Not sure how that will hold up and how I will go about digitizing this.

Essentially you are studying the material. I am still a rookie at this and I am sure my note process will change as I go. My notes might still be too passive, still follow the book too much vs being my own voice. Or maybe not, I just need to continue doing this and evaluate how I feel about the process as I go, and adjust.

Some of the interesting links I found when researching how others take notes:

I think the key is to start simple, not too worry too much if you have the right approach, just pick one and evaluate and then adjust as you go. Personally, I will continue to develop the note taking approach and looking forward to seeing where it will take me.

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