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How to Better Remember and Make Use of What You Read

Jeremey DuVall
Jeremey DuVall / November 27, 2014

Have you ever read a book passage that you're certain could one day be applicable to your life? But, between your shopping list, work to-dos, and your aunt's upcoming birthday, the passage quickly fades from your memory causing you to draw a blank when you really need to reference it.

When I began reading seriously for personal growth at the end of last year, I experienced this problem constantly. I was flying through books, but I was unable to recall or use any of the information.

Over the past year, I've been exploring and testing new methods for organizing what I'm reading for easy retrieval in the future. I’ve been looking for a system that meets three conditions:

1. Easy to reference and contain all the necessary attribution information.

When I'm writing, I often mention quotes and passages I've picked out from recent books. By having all of the citations ready in my notes, I can reference a book without resorting back to the full text.

2. Offers multiple views when searching for information.

Normally, when I'm looking for a particular quote, I'm more interested in finding similar quotes on that topic than I am about reading other quotes from that particular article or book. For that reason, reading notes should be organized by topic as well as source.

3. Helps me to summarize and revisit the main points of a book.

Research shows that summarizing the highlights of a book can help to elevate understanding. Through recording my reading notes, I hope to further increase my understanding of the text.

With those goals in mind, I discovered seven resources to help me organize notes from the books—both physical and digital—I read for easy reference later on.


Capturing Notes

Creating an Index

index notes

Maria Popova, an avid reader, pours through countless texts while compiling content for her site Brain Pickings. Each post she writes (she publishes three a day) references at least a handful of thought-provoking passages from writers including Henry David Thoreau and Kurt Cobain.

To reference excerpts from the physical texts she reads, she creates a separate index in the back of the book. The index uses page numbers to mark location and abbreviations to denote the type of passage (quote, idea, etc).

During a recent read of "The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way", I used the index technique to mark passages (pictured above). Here’s my abbreviation key:

  • Q - Quote
  • I - Idea (topics I want to read more on)
  • P - Main Point
  • R - Research (studies I found particularly interesting)

I noticed two main benefits to using this system. First, annotating the text is incredibly quick. Jotting down a page number and letter takes only a few seconds, meaning I’m back to reading in no time. Second, when I go back to revisit the passages I've marked, I can read them in the context of the page. With other note-taking systems that pull passages out of text into a separate document, I occasionally find myself reading a quote and thinking, “What was that in reference to again?” When I'm reading the quote within the actual page, I can read the paragraph before and after to get a more complete picture.

Using Notecards

note cards

Author and media strategist Ryan Holiday has used books as a primary learning mechanism since dropping out of college at 20 years old. The experience and insight he has gained through pouring over text helped him to write three bestselling books including "The Obstacle is the Way".

I’ve always been impressed with how Ryan incorporates quotes and stories into his writing. In "The Obstacle is the Way", each chapter or main point is reinforced with at least one to two examples from history. To help him remember and recall the vast amount of material he reads, Ryan keeps a commonplace book, a collection of notecards each featuring a particular quote or passage. A similar system is also used by great minds like author Robert Greene.

While Ryan is reading, he diligently takes notes directly in the margins of the physical text and highlights quotes or passages that he wants to capture later. On these particular pages, he folds up the bottom corner. A few weeks after he finishes the book, he revisits the pages and transfers the notes onto index cards. Each notecard contains a single quote or idea. The ideas are then organized by category, not by book. This way, when he's writing, he can pull up all of the information on a certain category to reference within an article or book chapter.

I haven't followed Holiday’s method precisely by creating my own commonplace book. However, I have done something similar in the past. While reading, I'll still fold over a corner to identify a page for later while marking up the actual text. Then, a week after I'm finished reading, I’ll type the notes into Evernote (more on that later) and tag each note for easy reference in the future.

Regardless of whether you want to copy the notes onto index cards or type them up, this method has two main benefits. First, waiting a week or more after finishing a text to revisit your notes allows the book ideas to ruminate in your mind. I find that the material sinks in more than if I copied the notes right after finishing and placed the book back on my shelf for good. Second, I've found that copying the notes either by hand or by typing helps to increase retention versus copying and pasting from Kindle highlights (an alternative method I'll cover in this post).

Drawing Visual Notes

Kleon drawing
Author Austin Kleon uses visual note-taking to record what he's read, such as Dan Pink's A Whole New Mind

For those that are drawing-inclined, author Austin Kleon, who describes himself as a "writer that draws", demonstrates how you can use a tactic called visual note-taking to capture book ideas. Kleon, is a huge advocate for pairing pictures with words, a trend we enjoy as children in comics but largely forget afterwards. He also happens to be quite a fantastic artist.

Visual note-taking can be a huge catalyst for creativity. As Kleon explains, it turns a largely linear activity (note-taking) into a non-linear art. Instead of listing ideas in the order they are presented in the text, visual note-takers can place similar ideas next to one another regardless of how they are presented. This can enhance creativity and help readers identify connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

For those that might not have aced art class or are be timid to give visual note-taking a try (like me), Kleon emphasizes the key is just to get over the hump of the blank page. Begin in the middle of the page with the main subject. Then, branch out adding sub-topics around the center. Use colors to organize ideas. Cut out pictures from magazines if you don’t want to draw. The main point is to break out of the traditional note-taking mold and try something new.

I recently gave this a try mapping out the 10 characteristics of flow mentioned in Steven Kotler's "Rise of Superman". At the risk of complete embarrassment, here’s my sketch:

Jeremy drawing

I found visual note-taking to be difficult since I immediately wanted to use words instead of pictures to translate the ideas. But, with a bit of effort, I was able to piece some images together. I still presented the ideas in the order described in the book (moving clockwise), but with some practice, I feel like I would get better at deviating from the standard order.

Exporting From E-readers

ibooks

By introducing the Kindle E-reader, Amazon turned reading from a traditionally physical experience (curled up with a thick novel into a digital one). Whereas readers could previously mark up the marginalia (the term for notes in the margins), now, they were forced to interact with screens. Fortunately, Amazon has made it incredibly easy to highlight and add notes while reading.

While I'm reading on my Kindle, I use the highlight function to markup the text. I rely on three different colors to help separate out the types of highlights (similar to the abbreviations in the index method above).

  • Pink - Ideas and words I want to explore further
  • Yellow - Memorable passages I want to remember for later
  • Orange - Books I want to add to my reading list

Kindle users can find all of their book highlights and notes using kindle.amazon.com. This is great if you just want to see what passages you highlighted. However, if you're trying to compile all of your notes in one place that’s easily searchable, you're going to want to move them elsewhere.

Copying and pasting directly from kindle.amazon.com can work, but you'll be spending quite a bit of time editing and reformatting the quotations. Thankfully, there's a handy little browser bookmarklet called Bookcision that can help. Bookcision works by grabbing the notes and highlights from a specific book and then translating them to plain text. From there, you copy and paste the highlights into Evernote.

Bookcision

Readers that purchase and consume books using Apple's iBooks app can highlight and annotate similar to Kindle users. After reading, there are two main ways of capturing highlights for storage. One way is to use the Mac app Digested. When you're done reading, plug your device into your computer and run the Digested app. This gives you the option to save your notes as a PDF (which can be copied and pasted elsewhere) or export your notes directly to Evernote.

If you're not on a Mac or don't want to use Digested, you can send notes directly to Evernote by using the email sharing option and your specific Evernote email address.


Storing Your Notes

There are a plethora of options for storing your material once you pull it out of your book. Some options are very simple, while others have more features than you could ever imagine. Here are a handful of the top apps I’ve come across.

Evernote

evernote

Perhaps the most widely used and recognized service, Evernote arguably offers the most functionality of any note-taking service out there. Notes can be organized and tagged for easy retrieval later on. Additionally, Evernote boasts handwriting recognition, meaning you can take a picture of handwritten text you've written in the margin of a book and have it automatically converted into a new note.

I've found two main benefits to using Evernote. First, many services (like iBooks mentioned above) have direct integrations with Evernote to post new information as notes automatically. Second, the search function on the Evernote platform searches note titles, tags, and content meaning you can pull up related book notes within seconds.

Normally, my process goes like this:

  1. Highlight in Kindle app
  2. Use Bookcision to pull highlights from kindle.amazon.com
  3. Tease out the book notes from ideas needing further research and reading recommendations (stored elsewhere)
  4. Paste book notes into Evernote and tag accordingly

Regarding the use of tags, I don't use a particular hierarchy just yet. However, avid readers that have dozens of tags all clustered around a particular theme or topic might find it helpful to create child tags. Child tags are essentially sub-topics of their parent tag. For example, "Decision Making" and "Mental Biases" are both sub-tags of "Psychology" in this example.

evernote tags

Author and business leader Michael Hyatt uses a similar system to organize his Evernote collection.

Those looking for similar functionalities outside of Evernote may want to consider either Notebooks App or Microsoft’s OneNote. Both offer comparable features for organization and note-taking.

Personal Website

Jeremey Duvall books

The major benefit to sharing your book notes and highlights on a website is that you can easily share them with others along with your individual opinions. Investor and avid reader Brad Feld, for example, frequently makes note of the books he reads on his personal site along with some commentary. Similarly, Shane Parrish, the man behind the blog Farnam Street, keeps a list of his reading material on his site.

In addition to adding book notes to Evernote, I've been posting them to my personal site alongside a short summary. I use a plugin for self-hosted WordPress sites called Reading List that creates a new post type called "Books". The main benefit of using the plugin is that your reading list is then kept separate from other blog posts on your site. Otlet’s Shelf provides a similar functionality in a theme for Tumblr sites.

DayOne

DayOne

Traditionally viewed as a journaling app, DayOne (available for Mac and iOS) also works extremely well as a method for saving notes and memorable quotes you come across while reading or perusing the internet. I use the Quick Entry Menu Bar icon to drop in items that I might want to reference later. Then, I use hashtags to categorize the entry for easy retrieval.

The main benefit to using DayOne for saving ideas is the quick entry. Under the Preferences pane on the Mac app, you can setup a keyboard shortcut that makes creating new entries effortless. On the iPhone or iPad app, you can set the app to open directly to the "New Entry" screen under Settings -> Advanced -> On Startup. Both of these settings help you to take notes with little disruption.


Billionaire investor Warren Buffet famously said that he spends up to 80% of his day reading and thinking. Reading books is one of the best ways to learn. But, quickly skimming through a text isn't enough. To truly benefit from the books we read, we have to read carefully, take notes, and try to apply what we’re reading to other areas of our life. Setting up a system for organizing and cataloguing what you read allows you to reflect back on the information later and get the most out of your library.

Credits: Books photo courtesy az via Flickr.

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