And because Dante says there is no point in studying unless you remember what you have learned, I have made notes of what seems to me the most important things I have learned in my dialogue with the dead…
The most powerful encouragement for taking notes while reading is the sense of despair that washes over you as memory of a book evaporates a few days after completing it. As Machiavelli commented to his friend Vettori, reading without memory is useless.
But despite its necessity, taking notes from books has always been frustrating for me; there is no ideal method, and each technique has benefits and drawbacks…I usually have the feeling that my notes are inadequate or ineffective, no matter what technique I’m using at the time.
Notetaking methods can be judged according to the balance they strike between speed and detail. Some of the techniques that I’ve tried:
- Occasionally I take notes in a “reading journal”: a standard-sized Moleskine notebook in which I recorded pertinent quotations, passages, paraphrases, summaries, and my own comments and criticisms. Keeping notes this meticulous allows me to absorb books in great detail, but it consumes vast amounts of time; books that would ordinarily require a few days to read sometimes take two weeks. Even the most cloistered scholar is unable to sacrifice speed to such an extent. It also seems a bit redundant, especially for books that I own, as if I am simply copying material that is already available.
- In an attempt to improve speed without sacrificing detail, I experimented with various notetaking software on the assumption that I could enter data via keyboard faster than I could by hand. I took this one step further by purchasing voice recognition software (Dragon NaturallySpeaking) so I could simply dictate rather than type. I was very impressed with the software itself, but it ended up being a waste of time and money because, as I discovered, I have a bizarre pyschopathology that makes it difficult to concentrate on reading or writing anywhere near a running computer – the sound of cooling fans and the glare of monitors is very distracting, and I’m left with a pathetic sensation of mental paralysis. The initial drafts of all my writing, including this blog post, are composed with pen and paper.
- Unlike many people, I have no qualms with writing in the margins and blank spaces of books. This method sacrifices detail, but it’s quick, and it keeps the notes within the context of the source text. The drawback is that referring back to the notes is time-consuming because it is necessary to page through the volume in search of the desired annotation. Furthermore, margin notes can become rather unsightly and distracting, especially when new notes are added upon re-reads. For example, some chapters in my copy of On War are buried in margin notes that were accumulated as I read the text from different perspectives, seeking insights on different issues. Eventually, every line of text might have a note associated with it, and thus the annotations lose significance.
- A related method is underlining or flagging passages, and then briefly paraphrasing each passage in a list on the front board along with page numbers. This enables one to quickly recall the general contents of a book and the location of relevant information by glancing at the list on the inside cover.
- Copying out passages verbatim has some major advantages. It is a simple, uniform method that keeps the author’s words intact and undistorted. Good quotations often encapsulate an author’s central argument, and recording them allows you to either use the quote itself or paraphrase it in your own writings. However, a book is more than the sum of its parts. Separating quotations from the larger context of the work risks leaving out key information and corrupting the underlying meaning of the passage.
- For myself, the seemingly most effective technique involves using adhesive tags to flag relevant passages as I read the book, writing brief summaries of each chapter or section in a notebook, and then copying down some of the tagged passages. This method strikes a good balance between speed and detail because I only break to write notes between chapters, and they are far more substantive than annotations in the margin. I’ve found that using flash cards with this method is the best way to conduct directed research on more substantive projects.
Depending on the book I’m reading, I might use any of the above techniques along with a few others, and occasionally I don’t take notes at all. I’m very interested to hear any suggestions or comments from the readership concerning this topic.