How I do reading notes

A Facebook friend asked how I go about taking reading notes, and I thought it might be worth a blog post. At a certain point in my academic career, I noticed that I was wasting a lot of time flipping futilely through books looking for the quote I just knew was on the left-hand page, etc. When it came time to write the Zizek book, I realized that my previous “method” of “just remembering” was not going to work. So I went through all the Zizek books I planned to use and transcribed quotes, with some notes about why I thought something was significant, how I might use it, how it connected to other points, or whatever. The result was a searchable text that I could largely use to write without referring back to the physical books — and even better, the result was that I had thoroughly digested the arguments in each book in a way that I never could have otherwise.

My goal in taking reading notes is to generate a similar document on whatever I’m reading. I do not do them for everything I read, but only for things I plan to draw heavily on or anticipate making repeated use of. One of my most systematic projects was generating reading notes over the classics of “political theology,” for instance, and I have used them many, many times. I literally have not cracked open The Kingdom and the Glory to look for a quote in three years, thanks to those notes. I don’t transcribe literally everything I underline, and in many books I wind up just describing what they talk about on given pages or ranges if it’s not something I anticipate making fine-grained use of. If I turn out to be wrong, I at least have a guide to where to look in the text.

My original Zizek notes were divided into four Word documents, corresponding to the main chapters in which I planned to address each book. Now I use Scrivener, and in fact it’s the only thing I use Scrivener for. The text editor in the PC version is clunky and not very full-featured, and the footnote functionality is simply unacceptable to me, so I don’t find it helpful for actual composition. What it brings to the table is the ability to group together an arbitrary number of texts (as long as they’re part of the same “project” — I just put everything into one big “project”) and search them all at once. So let’s say I remember Schmitt said something but don’t know what book. I can just group together my pages for each of Schmitt’s books and search them in one go. I guess I could solve this by putting all of the Schmitt stuff in one file, but then I lose the ability to easily search each text in isolation. I don’t know of any way to duplicate this functionality in any other program.

Depending on how much detail I want to go into, I can usually get through 50-100 pages of the original book in an hour. It’s tedious and in many ways mechanical, and for me that makes it the perfect research activity for the school year. It doesn’t take the energy and creativity of original writing, but it allows me to systematically prepare for writing, for both the short and long term. I don’t do it for every text I plan to use — especially for pre-modern primary texts, I tend to prefer to have the book out in front of me, though I’m not sure why that difference exists — but I always find it a helpful exercise whenever I wind up doing it.

What about you, dear reader? Do you have a note-taking system?

11 thoughts on “How I do reading notes

  1. I follow a similar method in Scrivener, but also use it for writing (I move to Word when I have a final rough draft). One nice thing about Scrivener is that you can move the notes between projects. If you’re starting a new essay you can just import all the relevant notes from previous work and you already have a searchable collection of material all in one place.

  2. I constructed a “greatest hits” quotation list on James’ Varieties in doc studies and have used it so much I had a student help me make a more thematic set of notes for the works of Ivan Illich for my next book projects.

  3. If you do notes well, you never have to do them again. Sadly, I have plenty of examples of doing notes poorly and needing to do them again — but none since the Rubicon of my Zizek book.

  4. I use evernote in a similar fashion – perhaps as a ‘lite’ Nvivo. I tag readings as they come in, particularly useful for Following up themes in other projects. I use the notebook function to organise by current project, duplicating where necessary.
    I use scrivener for early drafts, copying in fully formatted footnotes from mendely (which are used as the “titles” of my evernote notes). When the final work is ready, I simply go through and replace with mendely codes. It’s a little more work, but worth it for the ease of drafting in scrivener.

    But yes – LOTS of poor notes. Def. getting better. Just Pull The Quotes and Numbers, for the love of all that’s good. Even better than the “I know it’s on the left page” is the, “I know it’s 24.6%, where did I get that figure from” scramble. Grrr…

  5. But these then look nothing like e.g.
    one would presume?

    Would you care to share an excerpt, Adam? Let the ugly dwarf out, so to speak…

    I keep most notes so far in nvALT as short plain text snippets with the quote, citation key with page number and comments. Some notes are kept for each quote, others (often initially, before I know that the text contains much useful stuff) is in one note for the whole text. I also link between notes wiki style occasionally, sometimes gathering all disparate notes as links in a general note for a work (or a theme). This is inspired by the zettelkasten-method, initially by Luhmann and now by many nerds on the internet.

    But too many reading notes are just stuck in different manuscripts. I should spend some time and put them in my general notes database in nvALT…

  6. Wow you guys do a lot of work. If I point to something with a book dart I can just type it in while I’m writing if I want it, and when writing typing quotes is a good thing because it gives your mind a little break and takes up space.

    Maybe I could save time with all these Nviolajgk222# things but the time it would take to figure out how to use them never seems groovy.

  7. I *still* struggle with a low attention span, so my note-taking process is geared to getting around that. I use pdfs and ebooks; half my screen is the book, the other half is something like Evernote. I take detailed notes, and if I can’t stop my mind from wandering, then I just start transcribing really long notes until I can concentrate again. Then, for every 2-3 pages, I write a quick summary.

    It’s far too time-consuming, but I can’t absorb texts using any other method.

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