Notetaking: My endless intellectual crisis

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.


8 thoughts on “Notetaking: My endless intellectual crisis

  1. My reading is usually theme directed. If I’m following a particular theme I will read books that fit that theme and reinforce that theme. Then I’ll usually blog on it. That serves the role of note taking.

    If I’m trying to cram something to take an exam, I’ll use flash cards.

    Another approach I’ve experimented with is mind mapping. Though you can do it with paper, I usually do it electronically. A free open source mind mapping program like Freeplane or its ancestor FreeMind runs on Windows, Mac, etc.

    A few other free programs with similar features:


    There are others as well, free and commercial, but those are the ones I have installed right now.

  2. I usually write most on my laptop. Between different email addresses, flash drives and computers I must have at least three different books worth lying around.

  3. I can’t bring myself to write notes in my hundreds of books, which presents special problems for me. Taking notes separately is also so time consuming that I can’t move on to another book as rapidly as I’d like. When the time comes to write a serious paper on the topic, I always find myself flipping through the books looking for references that I remember reading.

    I’m starting to use the compueter more and more, but it’s bulky and more inefficient than taking paper notes. However, the readability is much improved, so I try to do that.

    For stuff I download on the computer, I keep a long running Notes file on my desktop where I store all my links, thoughts, and favorite quotes.

    However, my biggest problem isn’t with note taking – it’s with sources. Whenever an interesting topic comes up in a text, I can’t help but look up the sources. Before long, I find myself reading material completely separate from my original topic.

  4. Thanks for the input, folks.

    It seems I would do well to overcome my inability to write near a running computer. Electronic notetaking offers many options that I would at least like to have available. Mind-mapping, for instance, seems quite appropriate for the topics that I study.

    • The downside of electronic note taking is that it is vulnerable to electronic malfunction or (which recently happened to me) if your computer is stolen you are out of luck unless you have been very good about backing up files and keeping them separately from your computer.

      Here’s another way to keep notes: photocopy especially interesting pages, annotate the photocopy, punch holes in it, and put thematically related material in a three ring binder. You can photocopy the title page of the book on the back side if you want to retain bibliographical information for citations. Also, this avoids the dilemma you had in relation to your marked up copy of Clausewitz, because you can always copy a page again and annotate again on the basis of fresh insights into the text. But you can also differentiate layered comments within a book by using different colors of ink and always dating your comments.

      Best wishes,


      • For the longest time I did the three ring binder thing, but it eventually proved impractical – I move between Hawaii and every else quite a bit, and it is burdensome to drag a giant three ring binder around with me.

        Currently I have settled on two note-taking techniques. When reading a book, I read it with a blue, red, and purple erasable marker in hand. If an author records a revealing or interesting piece of data or historical information, I underline or highlight it in blue. Comments central to an author’s thesis or argument get underlined in purple. If I find something that I think to be particularly well argued or eloquently put I will use the red. I also carry a pencil around, and write in the margins when necessary – usually to point towards other books that make for good comparisons or contrast.

        The limitations of this method is that I cannot carry my library around with me. I often find myself disappointed to learn that the book I need is in some other part of the country. In addition, one should not write in books borrowed from the libraries of others.

        I get around this by taking notes on the books that I think are the most important (or that I will be most likely to use) in a notebook as I read them. This involves both summarizing and lifting passages from the work directly. After I am done with the book I take some time to copy all of those notes into a MS word, and use MS’s comments feature to record observation, connections, and thoughts most folks would place in the margins of their books. I find this format the most useful – I can take it with me anywhere (the wonder of USB drives!) and I will have it in a copy-paste ready format from the get go.

      • Ironically, one of the reasons that I’m more willing to give electronic notetaking another chance derives from a recent computer failure. My laptop for the past six years was an HP Pavilion zx5000, a model infamous for the noise of its fan. The hard drive crashed three weeks ago, and though I was able to salvage my important documents and install a new hard drive, I decided to invest in an entierly new computer – a Lenovo G555, which has a much quieter fan and longer battery life, features that make it a more useful notetaking tool than the older computer.

        An older notetaking program that I found to be useful was ndxCards, which allows electronic notes with an index card format. It’s ability to store detailed citation data from a variety of sources make it effective for substantive research projects, but it seems to have problems running on Windows 7.

        A few days ago I installed Evernote. It is an ideal application for general notetaking, especially when surfing the internet, but its inability to store citation data makes it ill-suited for more scholarly purposes.

        Ultimately, however, pen and paper will probably remain the most convenient medium in which to take notes from books, no matter what the particular method.

  5. Pingback: Mind Mapping and Friends « The Committee of Public Safety

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