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Ask HN: How do you take notes when reading a book?
77 points by Foe 10 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 60 comments
For example, I'm currently reading Designing Data-Intesive Applications and am taking notes digitally on OneNote (one page per chapter).

How do you guys do it?

This might sound nuts, but I have settled on a three step process that mostly involves keeping most notes in my head.

Step 1 is using the method of loci (MoL) to memorize up to 30 things throughout the day. For context, MoL is a strategy where you visualize things you want to remember in a room. I have one "room" for each day of the month, with 10 spots in a room, and will often visualize up to 3 things in a spot (so 10 x 3 = 30 a day). I have 4 paths that each lead between 7 rooms, one path per week.

Step 2 is just keeping a page of notes per day in a planner. This is really helpful for jotting miscellaneous things down (like future things to read, possible connections).

Step 3 is that often as I'm thinking back over notes from step 1, or reading new things, I'll want to sort of "put it all together", or write up something that cuts across multiple days. There, I'll often refer to my planner, and might start a spreadsheet to keep references on.

I think the problem before was that I'd wanted to write useful longterm notes when first learning / studying something. But that's probably when I'm least qualified to take really insightful notes. It's been nice to let things marinade, and focus on keeping the "building blocks" around!


I try to read books/papers on mac as it's faster to google and go deep into things I don't get. Select text (a+space and it queries selected text on google).

Then it's trivial to open any note (with alfred) from my wiki (https://github.com/nikitavoloboev/knowledge) & edit it under appropriate topic.

On the go, I usually note things down in Telegram saved messages and later transfer it to wiki or turn it into articles. Have macro to open saved messages instantly (https://github.com/nikitavoloboev/my-ios#widgets). Or I just pass it via share sheet.

https://excalidraw.com & Figma is also great for visual thinking (tying concepts together).

After I read a book, I review it in goodreads and recently realized that more useful reviews aren't just thoughts on the book but are summaries. So I try summarize my learnings from a book there.

For fiction books, I usually listen to it & Audible has nice highlighting feature but mostly the same applies. Important stuff gets noted in Telegram.

And as for apps I use PDF Expert to read PDFs on mac (love multi tab support), the Files app to read PDFs on iOS. And epub I read via Books app on mac/ios.

I'm quite excited for http://holloway.com because all books should be online by default. PDFs/Epub is archaic and lose ability to link to specific parts of a book instantly. i.e. just looks at this (https://www.holloway.com/g/alice-in-wonderland), so much nicer to read.

What would be even more amazing is when you can take ability to note under any line in a book (as Holloway already lets you), and see everyone's notes for any line/chapter of the book/paper you are reading. Similar to what https://fermatslibrary.com is doing.

I have a similar workflow for adding content to my wiki (https://github.com/davidgasquez/handbook) from the computer.

On the go I'll add a task to taskwarrior and get reminded when I sync it from the PC.

>What would be even more amazing is when you can take ability to note under any line in a book (as Holloway already lets you), and see everyone's notes for any line/chapter of the book/paper you are reading.

I haven't used it but sounds similar to what https://web.hypothes.is/ is trying to do.

I don't take notes. I find it distracting. I end up absorbing less information. The few times I did try taking notes, I rarely referred back to them, and when I did, found that they weren't very valuable. I've got a good memory, and I'm willing to reread something to absorb more, but notes have never helped me.

Not criticizing note-taking; just offering another perspective.

If you just write notes down, that is what will happen. Your note pile ends up being a graveyard of stuff you don't even know you forgot (but will never rediscover or reread) and stuff that's still nicely in your mind.

One key strategy to avoid this kind of note graveyard forming is to interlink notes. That way seeing a note can essentially lead you to wiki-binging through old ideas, trains of thought or re-stumbling on reference you thought was interesting once upon a time.

The value of interlinked notes is showcased by the late German sociologist Niklas Luhmann's notetaking system which he used to rediscover things he'd forgotten. His knowledge base consisted of ~90,000 index cards that were apparently worth referring to because of the wiki binge type effect his hyperlinking system allowed.



I used to follow this. But I later learned there's a big plateau between where note taking is a burden and where it becomes useful. If you're rereading notes and they weren't valuable, chances are that your note taking skills could use improvement.

It's a bit like touch typing - it takes substantial active effort at first.

Have you ever found yourself looping over a few pages too many times, or that a book is too difficult to digest? Or did you have to move a few chapters ahead to understand an early part of the book? This is where notes are extra useful. This is especially the case for math, science, technical books, or journals.

Some books are not suitable for note taking. Anything where the content can be summarized into powerpoint slides. Self-help or anything that's a best seller are often simplified enough for anyone to read. Story books are designed to be read without notes, and that often include historical and biographical.

I feel exactly the same way. Taking notes just distracts me from the original content and I end up absorbing less. When I was still in school, the only notes I took were exact copies of what the teacher/professor wrote on the board, and only if it was something I couldn't derive myself with what I already knew.

I wonder if part of it might be because I write slowly and tend to focus on my penmanship (unknowingly).

Yeah I do the same type of thing. I found that when something is inherently interesting, I remember it anyways.

I use the excellent Ulysses writing app that allows me to take notes in multimarkdown. I use it as a slide over app so I can just slide from the edge of the screen while reading and never lose sight of the book. I create a sheet for each chapter.

I've been scriblling points on 3x5 in note cards which I use as a bookmark. Might go through several notecards in a book. I then summarize/transfer over to my Notion workspace.

Interesting in seeing what others do!

Honestly, reading a book and knowing How to Read a Book is a skill.

I highly recommend this book for that reason: https://www.amazon.com/How-Read-Book-Classic-Intelligent/dp/...

On the front inside cover, I write the page number of each thing I find interesting/ useful. Especially the diagrams.

Then on the page to the right of that I jot down the things I want to learn more about and the ideas I come up with.

If it's important for me to memorize, the only way that works for me is writing down what needs memorizing, like with a pen and paper.

Personal/private notes:

org-mode. With org-noter when the reading material is compatible (most PDFs and EPUBs), otherwise manually written (copied, lightly edited if needed) headings. Manual notes follow the same hierarchy as the material (part, chapter, section etc.).

Shared notes:

If the notes are few and small, and the source material supports annotations (PDFs and other documents), then in-document annotations. Otherwise I make a separate document that can be rendered into its own PDF/HTML/EPUB forms and edited and maintained by others. This can be in the form of an office document, an org-mode file, a Sphinx or AsciiDoc project, whatever suits my collaborators.

A project I want to build some day is a tool that pulls highlights from kindle / play books and turns them into a morning email to help recall. If you steal the idea I'll be your first customer :)

Looks like this will be right up your alley, then: https://readwise.io/

That looks perfect. Thanks!

I use voice dictation on my phone to transcribe notes into a Google doc, along with the page number or timestamp (for audiobooks)

My note taking process used to be either whatever I could fit in the margin (not much) or require a separate note book.

Switching to my phone has been seriously transformative. Not only is voice dictation way faster than my handwriting, but I can do it in many more contexts because I always have my phone with me. I can also take much more detailed notes in context where handwriting isn't ideal (like a jerky bus ride).

Is there any way I could talk to you a bit more about your note taking process? My email is ishan2 at gmail. Would really appreciate it!

I believe strongly in continuing education. I have interests in literature, philosophy, science, math, computing. I study and take notes differently depending on my purpose and goals.

My tech research mostly collects snippets of information. Not terribly worried about attribution of any given phrase, fact or passage as paraphrase or quote from the author (though I am always careful to note the source, mostly so I can find it again ;)

For academic and thought research I am extremely careful. I take notes, riff on what I read [1], and take care to quote accurately.

Throughout all of this productivity, my reading is surprisingly the same. I filter every text with a narrow set of categories [2], and if it doesn't fit into one of these categories, then the text should be quoted (see?) or I'm not interested in the text (yet).

[1]: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23476470

[2]: Marginalia: Sign-posting a text https://docs.google.com/drawings/d/139g4uFXFCL1ZYrcWKTShbPsw...

Trello all day. Each book gets its own list. Each item in the list is something I want to remember.

Yes you have to write it out but this cost:

1. forces you to only save what matters 2. encourages you to compress the info which requires you to understand its essential parts

I record the notes as I encounter noteworthy things. At the end of a book the trello list is effectively a compressed book and index to the actual text.

I do like Trello. Currently moving over to Notion to tag all bots and items so that ideas naturally coalesce into something new.

I write the problematic parts on a whiteboard (well, the wall because I have whiteboard paint and it makes note taking a fun activity actually) and after a chapter I read my notes again together with the book hoping now it's clear. If necessary, I will jot down my notes into a Google doc. I found it exceptionally helpful when learning frameworks to write a blog post even if noone will ever read it on how I figured out things, it basically cements what I learned.

One of the best univ classes I went to allowed a single handwritten page "cheat sheet" at the exam -- in reality, the only one cheated was yourself because if you actually put in the work of condensing the semester into a single sheet then you usually learned the material during the process... sneaky.

I argue in the margins, as we've done for millennia.

But what if "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain"?

Then you write that and wait until Andrew Wiles (version 2.0) figures out how to prove it for himself.

Write down (page number;note counter) in the margin and then elaborate on one or more pieces of vellum, parchment, paper or bit(s) that you attach with the book, or keep secure.

why is this an argument?

I think they mean that they just write their thoughts/arguments for/against whatever topic at hand in the margins. Also known as annotating I suppose.

i argue with the text, my past arguments with the text...

a lot of the notes i take on papers boil down to “underline absurd claim, write WTF in the margin”.

I think this depends on: why are you taking notes?

Sometimes I'll take notes to help me process and remember things. These can literally be throwaway, as in the piece of paper gets thrown away at the end of the day, or the TextEdit window gets closed without saving. So I focus on the material rather than organization on the page, or even legibility/grammar.

Sometimes I'll be very focused on one thing and whenever I encounter a tangent/sidequest, I'll scribble it down so I can feel comfortable ignoring it until I've finished reading.

Sometimes I'll take notes for my own future reference. Sometimes I'll take notes I'd like to share with other people. Those are different goals and I'll do different things.

I underline and write in the margin, using my own symbolic shorthand for common words. I list all the symbols on the title page so I can decipher it in 5 years.

At the end of a chapter, I go back and make long-form notes in markdown, then commit to a git repo.

If anyone is interested in reading books in foreign languages, and then easily adding notes that are automatically translated, I would be interested in hearing from you.

Here is a demo, one of the most famous Japanese books ever: Kokoro, by Natsume Soseki.


You can select a word to capture it, it gets translated for you, and then you can build Anki cards to review your notes.

It's still under development, but you can see the concept.

The goal is first and foremost: mobile-first so no browser plugins.

If you have thoughts, I would be happy to hear them: chris@public.do

I create a summary document for every new book that I start. I copy and paste the title, authors, cover thumbnail, description, and table of contents if I can find it inline. I print this 1-2 page document and use it as a starting point to add hand written notes.

If I’m reading an eBook, I use the highlighter feature and review my previous chapter highlights before starting a new chapter.

For paper books I usually have a stack of plain paper bookmarks that I cut from blank index cards (1.5” x 5”). I write keywords on the bookmark as I read so I normally have a tersely annotated bookmark for each finished book that I staple to my printed summary page.

There's a whole book on that ('How to Take Smart Notes'), which I highly recommend: https://www.amazon.com/-/pt/How-Take-Smart-Notes-Nonfiction-...

Hands down one of my favorite (non fiction) books I read this year. The book is written by an academic, who I actually reached out to for a 1 on 1 consultation to help me with integrating Zettelkasten into my daily routine.

Ahrens' writing is amazingly dense. I don't think I've read a book that's that heavy to read apart from Aristoteles.

The idea is to write notes in my own words (https://www.amazon.com/How-Take-Smart-Notes-Nonfiction-ebook...) on roamresearch.com, instead of just highlighting the book/article like I do now.

But I have to say I feel like that is only worth doing if you're reseraching a topic that is important to you. Little value to take notes on the articles we read day to day here in HN and Reddit IMO.

Step 1: make highlights and inline comments in my ebook app as I go.

Step 2: batch export all the highlights and comments out and paste them into my notes app as a new note

Step 3: go through that note and highlight the ones that are the most valuable (i.e., progressive summarization)

Step 4: summarize and re-state those points as notes in my zettelkasten

I find this process really helps me keep track of the things that I find valuable without clogging up my notes with all the fluff. And the last step helps me build connections to other unrelated thoughts.

Marginal notes. Occasional use of tiny Post-It flag thingies to mark stuff I want to be able to find again.

Sometimes I will grab a highlighter and mark the edges of pages to make it easier to find sections in a reference work. Possibly with short versions of the section names written next to them, possibly with several colors denoting different kinds of information and a color key written on the flyleaf.

While reading I tried to come up with lots of questions which I am going to encounter in real life scenario like while reading chapter 5 first para, I come up with question "why replication is needed?" After finishing the chapter, these questions can become an anchor to build up the notes in my own language.

Notes also contains questions so that reviewing the content become better(recalling).

Underline/circle directly in the book, write notes in the margins, etc. Then when finished reading it, go back through to find all the highlights/notes and write them in a permanent doc. That second phase has really helped my retention.

For permanent storage, I almost always use a personal, public blog, just in case someone else could find the notes useful...

Yep I do it in the same way. Mostly if I decide to read a book, I print it out buy the book. Then I use (), [] underline and .x. symbols to make it important and keep reading the book and after each chapter I reread the marked point and scratch off if it feels unimportant after reading the whole chapter amd ghen proceed on.

I’ve a book where I keep notes on the books I read. Most of the time, I re-read the notes from the the last reading when I pick up the book again which is a great memory refresher. It’s works as great notes for the whole book when I need. I also make relationship maps to remember anything that has a lot of relationships.

I've experimented with a few different methods (keeping a notebook next to me, Gdocs, etc.) but in the end I keep defaulting to just using notes on my phone because I don't like to have my laptop open when I'm reading and when I want to jot something down, I want to do it then and there

I usually have a pencil with me while reading. I will add a 'N' letter next to the paragraph that is the key takeaway in the page. Once I finish reading a chapter, I will quickly skim through the markings and keep a note of it in Evernote. This helps me to remember a book much better.


I write a blog post. How?

I split the book by the headings section (not whole chapter), this is usually one or two pages. Then I try to explain what I understood in my own words. If the author used an example, then I come up with my example.

If the book is about programming, I put code on public GitHub.

After I finish a chapter, I reread my blog posts.

I don’t like to desecrate the book, I use small stickies notes to take notes and put them near the margin.

I use a couple of different Mac apps. First is the Calibre that converts ePub to pdf so I can use the Highlights app for research. That I can then export to DevonThink3 for organizing and writing of ideas. My favorite writing app is Scrivener and usually the last in my workflow.

I use these things to bookmark interesting things. Usually I end up with 10-20 in each book I read. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B000SHU86Q/

I circle, underline and star things that I feel were noteworthy directly in a book. One day when my son inherits my books I want him to know what I thought was interesting. I also write in the margins (or wherever there is space) if I must write something.

I annotate inside the book. Great if you own the book and really annoying if you don't.

I agree. My solution FWIW is to use a pencil to put a small dot adjacent to the paragraph or sentence of interest and write the number of that page on the back inside cover. It allows other people to read my books without disfiguring them. The books that is.

I write in the margins and anywhere there is white-space.

From Sutton and Barton - Reinforcement Learning:


I stopped this because it was just slowing me down too much. Takes both the fun and pace out of reading. There are way to many interesting books out there for that

I don't take notes, but I put little colored arrow bookmark stickers pointing at the text on the page to come back to after I've finished reading.

Taking a step back: Why take notes when reading a book?

Do you take notes for every book you read or just some?

digitally doesn't work well, it'll stick more in your head if you use pencil and paper. my process is read something, try to summarize in plain english in my own words, repeat.

As said in other comments, Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book is great for this.

I'll split it into three parts. First, you want to know what the book is about and whether it's worth reading. Second, your notes should summarize the core of it, so that as soon as you glance your notes, you understand what it's about. Third, and optionally, you want to criticize the book and compare it to similar books on the topic.

Before reading: Outline the book

Find out what kind of book it is - scientific, practical, philosophical, or historical. Some books, like Flow, are usually read by people for practical reasons, but it's philosophical in writing. The difference between scientific and philosophical is that philosophy expects no prerequisite knowledge, whereas scientific is unreadable without knowledge.

If it's a practical book, your notes should be focused around what to do. If it hasn't clearly explained what to do, then it's useless.

Get an overview of the book. Reading reviews or online summaries helps. Intro is great. Simplify it into one line what it really teaches you.

Skim the table of contents. Most books summarize a chapter at the end of each chapter or beginning. Get a feel of the skeleton of the book.

By now, you've skimmed the whole book, congratulations.

If it's a good book, it will tempt you read it in detail. If it's not, don't waste any more time on it. There are lots of books worth reading.

While reading: Terms and propositions

Put aside a section of your notes as a glossary of terms. This is extra useful for scientific books, where a term is often repeated, and philosophy, where different books use the same term to mean different things. Business books can be especially frustrating without defining terms.

Every time you see a new term, write it down in the glossary. You'll know a term is important when several paragraphs and figures are written to define it. The term might act as a pillar, supporting a whole chapter at times.

Next, write down propositions. What is the book trying to explain? A good book will be extremely dense - several propositions in just a few paragraphs. Some bad self-help books might only have one per chapter. The harder books will usually be most information dense and hardest to read, and this identifies them. Read them slowly.

After reading: What's the point of the book?

If you have properly read the book, it should elevate your knowledge to the same level as the author. Now you should criticize the book. If you have nothing to criticize, it either said little, or your understanding is not good enough.

Is the book true?

Check if the book is understood properly and dispute is not contentious. If criticizing, show where the author is uninformed, misinformed, or illogical. Otherwise what she says is not false, but incomplete.

What now? How does this change you? What do you do? If the book is practical, it must be acted upon. Otherwise, it is incorrect. Ask yourself why you don't act upon it.

This last part is actually quite exhausting to do and I recommend you skip it if you're still new or if the book just wasn't that good.

i love Workflowy! but find it takes me out of the moment a bit.

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