Reading as 1) building or 2) mapping

I’d like to get back to thinking about how I take notes in a  book. 

It’s easy to say you’re going to take notes on a book, but you need to do it in an effective manner. Shane Parrish calls note taking a conversation between you and the author. Personally I need to become a more active participant. While I take notes, I usually only note verbatim. 

Here is an interesting recommendation

At the end of each chapter write a few bullet points that summarize what you’ve read and make it personal if you can — that is, apply it to something in your life. Also, note any unanswered questions. When you’re done the book, put it down for a week.

I think of book learning as building blocks, where the comprehension gained from each chapter helps build a little brick where we eventually construct a building or a fence or a messy blob, depending on the subject. I take what I learn from a book and compare and contrast to what I already know. Similar ideas and thoughts combine to become stronger blocks. New ideas and counterintuitive arguments help push the project in a different direction. Poorly argued ideas can bring down an edifice. That’s why we don’t quite know what we are putting together. 

Shane Parrish thinks of this more like cartography. He has an interesting method on how to remember and process what you’ve read. 

shane parrish.png

Both methods have the same unknowing quality. I don’t know quite what I am building and he doesn’t have a full sense of  where he is going.

The important part is reading actively, getting yourself to think about what you’ve read summarize it in a way you understand. This leads to better memory retention. The big trick, I think, is moving from one media (book) to another (paper) which forces your brain to think about the content in a different way. This may also jumpstart the process of moving the material to long-term storage of your mind.

Ideas on notes

I am still thinking about Jennifer Roberts asking her students to sit in front of a piece of art for three hours, writing down their observations. She asks them to note how their thoughts and feelings change over the three hour time period.  

The idea stems from the fact that staring for three hours will force you to look in detail at each inch of the painting. As your eyes pour over every nook and cranny, you can find aspects of the painting you would have missed walking by or sitting for a few minutes. Roberts has done this in front of paintings herself, and she expects your thinking about the piece will change over time as these details come into view. 

I’d like to think about how to do this with books. I read a lot of books, and while they’re a good source of education, I have to think I miss a lot of details. Deep reading is one thing. But like Roberts instructs her students, I think it would also help to note down my thoughts and feelings about a book as I am still reading it. 

Here are a few ideas I have. 

Audible as a crutch 

I listen to audible, sometimes jumping rope. This is a problem for noting ideas down, so I have tried to also grab the physical (or ebook) where possible. I glance at the book after I’ve gone through a chapter or interesting section. Working in a library makes getting a hold of the book easier. 

It’s true that blogging about my readings has helped me increase thinking about those books. And daily blogging has allowed me to watch how my thinking evolves as I move through a book. 

In regards to Audible, I find turning the book off and letting myself reflect on the book. I hope this leads to deeper learning. 

Of course, I am writing this in front of my library’s copy of Crashed by Adam Tooze, which I’ve only looked at occasionally since listening to audible version. I know I need to dig more into the book — he covered a lot of ground in that text — but I haven’t yet brought myself to do it. 


I am a dedicated note taker for non-fiction books that I read. Sometimes I read with the computer next to me so I can type the notes in immediately. Or I travel around with a nice set of sticky tabs that I place right on the paragraph I’d like to get back to. 

This sticky tab method is interesting because I can do it just about anywhere. However,  sometimes I find myself looking over the paragraph in question and wondering, “why did I note this? This is nothing.” 

The one issue about my notes is I generally write them about verbatim, so they can be a few sentences long. I know it would lead to a deeper learning (or memory) if I force myself to put the text in my own words, using my own examples. 

Reading is a wonderful pastime, and working through a book on a complicated subject can be a chore. A good chore, but you hope that it helps you in more ways than one.