rummaging through all the paper

I feel like I have been taking notes on what I read since I was about 14, and that for all of that time I have been doing so very badly.

For me, there has always been two reasons to take a note.

Firstly, to pick one idea out of the many on the page and put it down in my own way is to make a decision about the information I prioritise. The very act of selecting and transcribing the thought I had when I encountered that element of the book helps me to understand and categorise what I’m reading. In theory.

Secondly, the notes should act as a record that I can return to later, once the short term memories of that particular book have faded. Scanning through them, I would like to think, will revivify the experience of encountering that text for the first time and allow easy access to the information I selected for future work.

The studying and note taking I did at school and university all took place on paper. As a teenager, I loved stationary and hauled around a heavy backpack with many folders, notebooks and coloured pens. I recently helped my mother clear out some of the notes I produced during this time from her attic, and was startled to see how incredibly elaborate and comprehensive this stuff was. In many cases I was reproducing the textbook in full, complete with multi-coloured headings and carefully drawn diagrams. Perhaps the act of writing it all out again had some memory function for me (more on this in a moment) but there was no sense of distillation or selection. These weren’t notes so much as copies, the work of a scribe with too much time on her hands. The “aesthetic notes” movement, so ubiquitous today online, feels like it’s still stuck at this point.

I got a laptop when I went to university and wrote my weekly essays on this computer, using my handwritten notes to do so. Wifi wasn’t widespread and although portable the laptop mostly lived on my desk in my student room, plugged into an ethernet cable. Only my ruled A4 pad and my pen travelled with me to libraries and lectures. Thus, for every book I read, there was a sheaf of paper full of page numbers and quotations that I had copied out. I wasn’t doing the colourful headings – I was a serious undergraduate now — but the instinct to transcribe everything was still very strong. I remember being frustrated when trying to write up my assignments late at night, rummaging through all the paper I had used in the library that week and failing to find anything that I could slot into my argument because it was unclear why I had copied out these quotations rather than any others.

Handwriting my notes was a habit further reinforced by my journalism training, where we were taught shorthand and how to lay out a notebook so that it would be admissible as evidence in court. It wasn’t until I began work on my first book that I contemplated switching from noting by hand to using a computer, in an attempt to circumvent the need to flick through so much paper. That book is in part a history of the river Thames, a subject about which a vast amount of information has been published in the last 500 years. My process was one of extreme distillation, trying to sample as much as I could in the time that I had and then discarding what didn’t resonate with me as I built my own narrative.

I used Scrivener, a piece of software often recommended for authors, which has an interface that allows lots of different text documents to sit alongside each other as if in a ring binder and be combined or separated at will. Each book I read had a different entry, and the global search function was helpful — when I reached a point in my manuscript where I wanted a fact about Hilaire Belloc’s walks from Oxford to London as a student in the 1890s, for instance, I could just hit Control + Option + F and see if I had any notes to repurpose. I didn’t write the book in Scrivener, though, which is what that software is in part designed for. I did that in Microsoft Word. I don’t remember why, really.

Although having all of the information that I had amassed searchable like this was a vast improvement on a mass of paper filled with contextless quotations, it still didn’t feel like a useful repository of notes. Often when I did turn up a search result for something I was writing about the information I had recorded wasn’t sufficient or even comprehensible. I would still have to go back to the original source or do more research. It felt like I was doing the same work twice.

Typing notes directly into the computer like this also seemed to sever an important link I hadn’t even realised was there. Handwriting made me slow down enough to think more fully about what I was recording and why. It also seemed to give me some spatial awareness about the book I was reading, to the extent that I could often remember where on the page and how far through a book a particular moment came. When taking notes digitally, I had no such memory. Plus, computers are too full of distraction. It’s too easy to check email or social media instead of taking notes when it all happens in the same place.

When I embarked on my current book project, then, I was determined to find a better way. Unlike the Thames, hypochondria is a topic that has relatively rarely been addressed head on (which is in part why I’m doing it now). There aren’t many books or articles, relatively speaking, with that word in the title. The research process is more intuitive and requires me to hop between disciplines and types of sources, collecting what is relevant from fields as disparate as folklore and neurology. I hope this is what will make the eventual book worth reading, but as an information gathering and storage exercise, it’s complicated. I don’t know what the structure is in advance or where it will take me, so I can’t design an approach ahead of time.

So I did what I probably should have done years ago and did some research into the practice of note taking itself. I found that there is indeed a detectable link between handwriting and the formation of complex memory. I encountered the work of the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, who maintained a prodigious scholarly output in his lifetime and even after his death because of the way he noted each individual idea he had on a separate card in a Zettelkasten or slipbox and used a sequence of numbers to link them. I fell headfirst into this world of “smart note taking” and would recommend two of the books I read to anyone who is also interested in this: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens and Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadavy. I also found a phD student with a helpful YouTube channel that demonstrates these principles, and began to build a new system for myself.

This is what my notes look like now.

This is the visual view from a programme called Obsidian. It’s a skin that sits on top of a folder of markdown documents and allows you to manipulate and link them. Each of the nodes that you see above is a separate note file, and you can see in this timelapse that as I’ve added more and found connections between the ideas that various hubs have developed, showing me where the key texts and concepts are. Following Luhmann’s example, I’m not producing long lists of quotations from each book I read, but rather writing out each idea that I encounter in my own words, adding any necessary references, and then saving that as a note in its entirety, the better for linking together with others. I really love this process — it’s almost like I can feel the synapses firing in my brain – and it’s already helping me structure sections of the book that require me to pull together disparate ideas into a seamless narrative.

As for how I’m reading books now, this is an area where I feel like I’m waiting for the technology to catch up with me. I want the tactile, memory-forming habit of taking notes by hand but the convenient searchability of a digital repository. Something like Apple’s “Scribble” handwriting recognition feature on the iPad would seem to offer this, but so far it’s been too clunky and inaccurate for me. Instead, I have a Supernote A5X, which is an e-ink tablet designed entirely for reading and writing, and I read and annotate all my journal articles and ebooks on that before exporting them and adding them to Obsidian. I really like the simplicity of this device and the fact that it really doesn’t do anything other than that use case I’ve just described. You couldn’t check Twitter on it even if you wanted to.

If I’m working from a physical book, I still like to read with a pencil in my hand. I do write in the margins of books that I own and use sticky notes to mark the pages where I’ve made comments that I’ll want to put into Obsidian later. If it’s a library book or one I don’t want to scribble for some reason, I use transparent sticky notes to write next to the text I’m referencing and then I remove them when I’m done.

One thing that I’ve been very conscious of through all of this is my habit for productive procrastination; of finding “worthwhile” activities that fill up my time so that I never get started on what I’m supposed to be doing. Fortunately I found this new note taking style so addictive that I immediately wanted to try it on real material and made progress that way, but it’s always something I’m alert for. This kind of “digital gardening” could absorb a lot of time without much benefit if you’re not careful. The lack of rigidity in this system is a useful guard against this tendency too, because the structure emerges as you work rather than being something you have to create and then tweak as circumstances change. If something isn’t working in my Obsidian, I just do it differently without redoing everything that has gone before.

Given that, I am always refining and improving this process — it’s not static — and I would love to hear from you about how you read books and take notes.

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