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?