Keeping notes on books

The documentation seems to assume that you already basically know what you’re doing, and need help with the details. I, on the other hand, am a complete newbie, trying to figure out how to use this app.

Something I’ve always done is take notes on books, which results in files that look something like this:

Memoirs of a dutiful daughter
Beauvoir, Simone de, 1908- . cn
New York : Harper & Row

Page 138 – 1/10/22
The facts of religion were convincing only to those who were already convinced.

Page 138 – 1/10/22


Page 138 – 1/10/22
this was an established scientific fact

Nice. I love love love how self-aware she is. Of course she knows now that it was no such thing, but that’s certainly how these things can seem.

Page 139 – 1/10/22

Check out?

However, having all these notes stored in this flat way is not as helpful as it could be. If you’ll Iook, there’s several kinds of things here: To-dos, interesting quotes to save for future use, my own thoughts, etc. I’ve created a database using TapForms to save all this in, but it’s a bit cumbersome to individually import each item. I was hoping that Obsidian would help me organize this stuff in new ways, but I really don’t have any idea how. Any thoughts?

I keep notes organized by page/section number just like that, but then I add links to topic-oriented index notes. Here’s a screenshot to illustrate:

So, if I want to look up my notes on Book 3.5 of the Nicomachean Ethics, I have them all laid out there. On the other hand, if I want to focus on one of the linked topics, I can go to those topic notes and find, not just what I learn in this book, but in any other book.

You’ll notice that some of those links are to pages that haven’t yet been created. That doesn’t matter. When I do want to think about, e.g., the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, all I have to do is create the pages, and all the backlinks will be there for me. This is the really revolutionary thing about Obsidian for me: I can quickly file my notes under multiple indices without having to take time to create that index (I do that when I actually have time to work on a project).

I also keep lists of topics that a given author/book/section/whatever covers, or things I’m studying about a specific author, for quick reference. Some pictures to illustrate:


Nice informatiom

My experience, for what it’s worth, is that book notes I’ve taken for reference purposes rarely get discovered again in my workflow. So a simple idea I’ve adopted in my note-taking, that builds on collecting quotes and references, is to make “Notes to self” that summarise my own thinking or connections as I’m reading and thinking about what I’m reading. I literally write “Note to self: …” followed by my thoughts, so that I can find these notes easily and differentiate them from quotes, references etc.

This practice can be followed anywhere you take notes: in other apps, on paper, in books/readers… You can then conduct searches for “notes to self” and export those notes, and turn them into Obsidian atomic notes, and start connecting notes. Those atomic notes provide the breadcrumbs back to your original book notes and references, and increase the chance of re-discovering stuff you’ve squirrelled away.

I’ve shared some more detailed thoughts on another thread here: What has your PKM actually help you achieve? - #10 by NeuroJitsu


I like this, NeuroJitsu! I do something somewhat similar: I use the Spaced Repetition plugin for incremental writing, using the inline tag “#seed” when there’s something in a reference note that I want to revisit later, maybe expand into an atomic note, but which isn’t fully formed enough to be an atomic note yet. The SR plugin schedules out these seeds for me to revisit later. I don’t clearly distinguish these thoughts from quotes or references, though. I like your “note to self” system.

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At first I was like, “does he copy each quote to multiple files? That sounds like much more work than putting them in a database and tagging them!”

But it sounds like you’re saying that you just create the link, and the quote magically appears on new page? (Sorry, I really am a complete newbie here.)

Not directly - the “magic” is performed by backlinks → see here and here

I suggest you look into zotero and plugins that import metadata from it into obsidian like:

hans/obsidian-citation-plugin: Obsidian plugin which integrates your academic reference manager with the Obsidian editor. Search your references from within Obsidian and automatically create and reference literature notes for papers and books.

give it your desired template and it generates the notes for you like magic

Every interesting topic that i have been struggling with it for a while now.

Right now I make indices and also collect quotes and references by intuition without much principle behind it. I have made QuickAdd solutions for quickly capturing and linking annotations in a special note. but I am still frustrated about how to process these raw materials.

I collect people books sometimes small stand a lone notes I call nuggets. and sometimes a collection of pieces of information on the same topic that spread all over the book I call threads. but still I am not sure what to do with it.
I am also trying hard to get used to progressive summarization method for literature notes which I think can be very helpful.

That’s exactly right. So say I found a quote in book A that is relevant to topic X and topic Y. All I have to do is write the quote out in book A, then add links to X and Y.

Weeks or months later, suppose I want to work on topic X. All I have to do is go to note X and look at the backlinks, and the quote from A will appear there. At that point I can incorporate it into the note itself.

The really cool thing is this works even with notes that haven’t been created yet. So suppose I’m interested in Y but haven’t created a note for it. I can still tag A with “[[Y]]”, and whenever I get around to creating Y, the backlink will appear. If I have ten notes link to Y, then the moment i create a page for Y, I instantly have a foundation of notes and research at my fingertips. And I didn’t have to pre-create a note, make a perfect MOC, or anything like that—all things I’d love to do but don’t have time to do for everything I think about.

Essentially I use uncreated notes as tags: anything I think I might be interested in someday gets labelled as a note. Maybe I’ll actually make a note someday maybe not. It’s better than tags for me, because if I do actually create the note I don’t have to add links to all my other notes. The moment I hit “Create,” my backlinks page is populated with all my notes on that topic.

(I actually regularly create and then delete blank notes to keep tabs on topics I don’t have time to write about. It’s fun.)

Ideally, once I create an orphan note I’ll also add it to other notes that it might be relevant to. This increases the odds it’ll be found and linked to in the future, and decreases the odds that I’ll create multiple notes on the same topic, with titles phrased slightly differently (a risk of my system). An example of this are the chapter summary link lists in one of the pictures above. But if I don’t have time do this it’s fine.

Keep in mind that this is all for low-stakes lines of inquiry, stuff I’d like to get into someday but may not have the time. I’m also a professional academic and have dedicated project pages for active research projects that are maintained much more meticulously.


that is the big problem for me at the moment. Tiago Forte also avoid tags for this reason, but i find using backlinks as tags to be so good to not use. i do link notes also somewhere in MOC so that they are not disconnected. but i think having a quick system to find the exact relevant tag/link can be very useful here. otherwise one ends up with a lot of similar but slightly worded links that are not as good as they could be.

That sounds good, but my formatting problem is broader than that. I have these notes in Apple Books, in Bluefire Reader, in Evernote, etc. So I probably need a broader solution.

i understand, i still have stuff left in Evernote and other apps, but I think the only solution is to migrate all in few apps which you can keep them in sync automatically, if it is not possible just migrate and leave that app. otherwise the manual work and friction is too much for it to be doable

So here’s the thing: I can migrate from Evernote. But I can’t migrate from, say, Apple Books. That’s where I read and annotate books! I can’t do that in Obsidian (nor do I want to). So I need some way to export from there to Obsidian. That’s not hard. What’s hard is having all these disparate sources end up with the same formatting in Obsidian. How important is that? I don’t know. I just synced Matter to Obsidian (in fact that’s how I found out about Obsidian), and every Note Matter creates is very nicely formatted. Do I need to follow that format with everything? I don’t know.

Keeping in sync is not that big of a deal…well, maybe it will be. I don’t know. But I’m only thinking that I will import into Obsidian when I’ve finished the book or article, so live updates aren’t important.

The funny thing is this happened to me just as often, if not more, with tags. I often had multiple tags about the same thing with slightly different wording (#hope, #virtue_of_hope, #theological_virtues/hope, #virtues/theological/hope, etc.). So I agree that this is a problem, but I’m not sure if it’s a problem of links vs tags. I agree with you that also linking in some MOC helps mitigate this, and only takes a few seconds.

it is true, keep the same structure on all apps, keep them in the same format and the ability to import them into obsidian, in that case live/sync is not necessary. as you said there are cases like annotations from ebook reader and such that live sync is not needed. but IMO minimalist approach is better here, don’t add stuff if they are not necessary.

yes it is not the difference of tags vs backlinks, but it help me to reserve tags to bare minimal so keeping it clean and simple. I hope someone find some solution for keeping this links/tags/categories easy to use. there is also the problem of keeping these categories consistent over multiple apps. sometimes I don’t use a app for a while and when i come back it is a total mess I hardly recognize.

This is my problem with tags in general, vs. categories. If tags aren’t limited and defined, instead of spontaneous and arbitrary, they’re basically useless.

In some systems (Evernote for instance), tags are useful, because while they can be arbitrarily created, they are defined in the sense that there is a list of all extant tags that is easily accessible whenever you’d need it.

Obsidian has that! Pretty sure it’s a core plugin.

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Good to know about the spaced repetition plugin, thanks for flagging this I’ll check it out.

I know myself well enough to know that I’m terrible about following-through on my intentions to revisit things, so that’s always the rub for me with any note-taking system!

. I often had multiple tags about the same thing with slightly different wording (#hope, #virtue_of_hope, #theological_virtues/hope, #virtues/theological/hope, etc.).

Remnote gets around this problem by having aliases for tags. Also in Remnote tags are also links (i.e Rem references). Any search portal for topic brings up all the above.

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