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I read books for fun and to help my writing. I want to remember the cool things I read, but I don't want to distract from the enjoyment of reading.

Any suggestions on how to take notes or better recall plots/characters/interesting facts/random ideas while reading?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 19 down vote accepted

When reading any book (fiction or nonfiction), I usually take a piece of A4 paper, fold it in half along its longest edge, and use it as a bookmark. I write directly on the bookmark, jotting down anything I find amusing or interesting. The bookmark always stays inside the book (which is necessary because I'm often in the middle of reading several books). After I finish reading, I put the book away with the bookmark inside.

After some time passes, I pick up one of those books again and enter all my notes from the bookmark into the computer. This allows me to quickly get an overview of the book again. It is like a second reading, "reader's digest" style. Quick, no details, but it brings me back into the atmosphere of the book very easily.

After that, I can always come back and read the electronic summary. It is often interesting to read several summaries after each other, when the books have a common theme (e.g. physics). You start seeing connections between the books. You get multiple perspectives on the same material. This often even allows me to make summaries of the summaries, giving a lot of insight and bringing up deeper questions.

Yes, I know, I'm a book freak ;-)

I still keep the bookmarks inside the books, because they often have little drawings on them or have a specific "feel" to them that is harder to capture in a text file.

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Many times I've wished I had the discipline to do exactly this! I got a Kindle recently, and it has some annotation capability, but I haven't worked it out just yet. I'm not sure how helpful it would be in any event. The Kindle desktop app might be a different story. –  Kelly C Hess Mar 24 '11 at 0:31
    
The nook and nook desktop apps also have this functionality, and keep everything in sync (I don't know if the Kindle does as well). But this is a fantastic system. +1 –  Tyler K. Mar 24 '11 at 2:28
    
Great thoughts. I've done the same thing with an envelope for years, but find I usually fill it pretty quickly. If you used a piece of paper instead, you could fold it different ways for more writing area. The summary collection was an awesome idea as well. –  John MacIntyre Mar 24 '11 at 3:07
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If you need even more area after filling the bookmark, you can always add a second one. –  Koen Van Damme Mar 24 '11 at 19:08
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The editor from shurtugal.com wrote a book recently; he based it on the notes he'd taken from the Inheritance Cycle books. To make a long story short (you can read the full account of how he wrote the book, which is titled "The Inheritance Almanac", by the way), he took many notes using sticky paper, attaching them to his "working copy" of the book. He also highlighted the relevant parts. He did that after having reading it several times, though.

On the other hand, I remember many things with relative ease, and do not take notes whatsoever. And I buy only one copy of my books, for that matter.

My advice is: read the books the first time (or first few times) "for fun". Then you can get serious and take notes or highlight. Or, if you're like me, after a couple reads you'll remember most of the details that are interesting by heart.

Of course, there are middle spots. But I don't know about those...

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Great idea. I've heard it said that people are way too squeamish about highlighting and scribbling notes in books. They say books are meant to be used in whatever way the reader needs. I can't seem to get past my upbringing, though! –  Kelly C Hess Mar 24 '11 at 0:32
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I normally keep a pencil with me whenever I am reading something, and will just lightly underline text that I like: phrases, words etc. Then, when I reach a natural conclusion in the book (end of the chapter/section), I'll make a note of it in my pocket-sized journal, which I keep with me at all times. If you can't underline, write it straight into your journal. (I like the previous poster's comment on using an A4 piece of paper in half, that's a nice idea, and I may try that myself).

If something I'm reading triggers any idea at all, I will immediately write it down in my journal once I reach the end of the sentence, typically with the date, book name, and page number (if necessary). I dread the idea of letting ideas go to waste! I find that, once you get used to jotting down brief points quickly, it doesn't stop the enjoyment of the book. If anything, it increases it because I'm free to concentrate on reading instead of letting my mind worry about trying to remember things.

Finally, I recommend writing a review of the book as soon as you're finished, referring to your notes if necessary. Try summarise the book in a few lines, then look at what you liked/disliked both as a reader, and as a writer. Doing it immediately is important, because the things that stayed with you after you finished are, generally speaking, the most important.

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+1 for never letting an idea go to waste ;-) –  Koen Van Damme Mar 24 '11 at 19:00
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Your question didn't explicitly mention that you read paper books. For this reason, I feel it necessary to bring up digital book readers, such ad the Kindle, Kobo and iPad (with which I am writing this response). Digital annotations distinguish themselves from paper annotations in three important ways:

  1. Many of them allow you to annotate and to highlight what you read all without the inconvenience of irreparably marking an original paper book.
  2. Digital annotations are searchable. If you make a lot of notes, being able to search through them quickly is a valuable feature.
  3. Digital annotations can often be shared across several devices or backed up.
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I think iPad is a better choice compared with other devices for your purpose. There are great apps, such as Good Reader or Student Pad, on iPad that can be use for intensively notetaking or highlighting.

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When I'm reading for content, I use PostIt notes. I have several different colors and sizes, and I make my notes on those, then press them into place under the passage, and I label part of it with a word or two, which sticks out like a tab when the book is closed. Books I've finished are rainbow colored and ruffled with PostIts. But I can always find what I'm looking for.

I much prefer this to making slow notes on my Kindle. I can see everything at a glance and go right to what I need. Sure, the digital search is nice, but after years of doing it the other way I'm used to it. It's also great for library books, because the notes can be removed.

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Another idea to throw into the ring: blog your notes.

I get inspired by Derek Sivers' book notes online.

I agree with Koen about transferring notes into a computer. And with Craig about writing a review.

Combo that with a blog to help others and to better cement in your head what you've read.

Joe Karbo said you should RSVP important things you read and learn, to firmly internalize them and live them:

  • Read
  • Study
  • Verbalize (Teach)
  • Practice (do it)

The questioner asked about methods to use without getting distracted from reading, so perhaps my ideas are not overly applicable here.

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