Monday, June 23, 2014

Reading and Note Capturing System

Much of this blog is about reading and the joys of reading. One of the main reasons I read is to collect stories and tidbits and information and research that I can hopefully use in my work with marriages and families. And it is sometimes surprising what kind of stories can be applied to the work I do. While reading Plutarch I found this amazing story about Solon and the work he did to reform the entire government of ancient Greece. I condensed the story and included it in a product we developed for men to illustrate servant leadership.

For me, the key to collecting and finding excerpts from these books is a system I developed over the years. Recently I read Ryan Holliday's blog post on this topic, who is a well read young man and an Internet marketing expert. I really like his idea of using note cards, and I've begun to use notecards more frequently to capture ideas, thoughts, and quotes. I learned some helpful tidbits from him, but I thought it might not hurt to post my approach here as well. It's a system I've been using for the last five or six years and it works well for me.

So here's how it works: I start with reading a book, of course, and while reading through the book, this blue pen is always in hand (yes I buy them by the dozen). I don't use a highlighter because I can't write notes in the margins or in the back of the book with a highlighter, and I don't like wasting time switching back and forth between pens and highlighters. Also highlighters have a tendency to bleed through, but my trusty blue pen rarely does. While reading I mark and underlined like mad, and when I see something that seems reference worthy, I make a note on the very last page of the book. Sometimes it's a long note, but usually it's just the page number and a couple of words that point back to the importance of the quote.

Notes from the back page of The Rise of Evangelicalism by Mark Noll

I write it in the back of the book because I write with my right hand, so that allows me to not have to slow down so much that I have to put the book down and open to the front to write in the front. I have noticed that others like to write in the front, but it seems to go faster for me to just write in the back, on the left side. (Publishers, PLEASE leave a few extra blank pages in the back of your books!) Once I've completed a book, and I agree with Ryan Holliday and others here, it's good to put the book down for a few days, and often it ends up being a few weeks or months before getting back to it. A benefit of waiting to go back through the book is the things that once seemed important may not seem so later, thus time acts as a natural editor. In theory two or three weeks would be best, but in practice, when I have time that could be dedicated to capturing notes from a book, the impulse to read often overtakes the window of opportunity. Hey it's a terrible habit; an addiction that is hard to stave off at times.

Books, patiently waiting their turn to be lovingly grafted into the system.

The next step is eventually picking up the book and capturing the notes out of the back page. I used to type these notes, but now, with the wonderful advantage of voice capture on the iPhone, I am able to do this in the car, at stoplights, which really speeds along the process. Once I have the notes from the back of the book captured, I use that set of notes as a guide to work back through the book and capture the individual quotes, all of which I enter into a single word document.

Some of the note files
Once I capture all of this I place the doc in the file where I have all of these various book notes captured. The beauty of having it this way is that it is fully searchable. Ryan Holliday makes a great point that if you are hand writing these notes on notecards, then it makes it more memorable. Even though I'm a HUGE fan of writing, fountain pens, notebooks, etc., I haven't found handwriting on notecards and the potential ability that they might make the ideas more memorable to be worth the trade-off of not having these notes fully searchable on my computer. Inevitably what happens is as I am trying to write something for work or a blog post, a story or a segment of a story will come to mind. To be able to search that on my computer is much more valuable than having it buried in a box of notecards. Although in theory it would be great to have the notes in both places, I haven't figured out how to do that nor could I imagine wanting to take that much time away from actually reading.

I may publish more of these note documents here on this blog, as I have done before with Theodore Roosevelt and Bonhoeffer (still two of the most often visited posts). Just be aware that these documents are not  book summaries or a complete analysis of a book, they are simply a compilation of things I thought were interesting in the book and felt might be usable at some point in the future.

In theory it is best to only read one book at a time. That way you do a better job of tracking the argument of the book over time, and retaining a sense of the key thoughts of the book and a collective sense of the overall purpose of the book. However I find myself getting bored if I try to read only one book at a time. I tend to have 3 to 5 different types of books going at any given time. I usually read different styles of books different times of the day. In the mornings I tend to read theology or books that require more thought. Right now I'm going back-and-forth between Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will, and Luc Ferry's A Brief History of Thought. In the afternoon I read business or productivity books, or marriage ministry books. Right now I'm reading What's Best Next by Matt Perman, and What is the Meaning of Sex by Denny Burke. In the evening I read history and/or fiction. I usually like to finish the night by laying in bed and reading, but I try to only read history at that point. I find it to be the best way to wind down the day. I don't usually want to read most fiction then (though I REALLY enjoy a good novel) because I can get too drawn in and stay up later than I should, and I don't want to read something that requires a lot of thought and gets my brain stirred up again. I recently finished a Harry Potter book (I know, contradicts my above statement about fiction, but it was easy to put down, and I was primarily reading it to know what they're about as my son is reading them), and I'm also finishing up a long book on Winston Churchill by Max Gilbert. I tend to read just 10 to 20 pages of history a night, thus it might take me many months to get through a history book, but I enjoy it that way. One other thing I might do is have an audiobook going in the car. This can be fiction or history. Recently I've listened to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'engle (another my son enjoyed), Shadow Divers, and a Lance Armstrong bio. This week I started listening to a VERY interesting book on the making of the Atomic Bomb that my son has been listening to. Fascinating. I've read Richard Rhodes' epic book on the topic, but this book gives a slightly different and more engaging take (and probably much more accessible).

A tip to reading more for those who have a hard time squeezing it into their schedule: find groups to discuss books with. Right now I'm involved in three different book discussions, nibbling away at a few chapters a week in each of these books. At least two of the books are ones I probably wouldn't take the time to read on my own, even though I know I should. But the discussion groups provides a schedule and motivation.

Now, about E-Books: The above system is the reason why I read very little on a kindle or any other device. E-books are almost completely worthless to me for note taking and referencing. I do read a handful of books a year on a kindle app, but very few of which I highlight at all. The activity of writing in a book, flipping through the pages, and the speed at which I can move around a paper book FAR EXCEEDS that of an e-book. Digital books are too cumbersome to fit with this process. But maybe some day... Amazon, start by REQUIRING PAGE NUMBERS IN ALL BOOKS! Fundamentals...

Let me know if you have any tips or ideas on how to best collect notes from books. I'm always looking to learn.

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