Techniques to create permanent notes from a textbook

Although creating permanent notes from research papers and chapters has been both manageable and very powerful, I’m now faced with not quite knowing how to approach a complete textbook that I’m reading.

I’ve read the first two chapters and created a few pages of literature notes, but turning these into permanent notes will take some time and I’m not convinced how much benefit there will in doing this. My concern is that any permanent notes I make now could be trivial as I develop my understanding of this new field as I work my way through the book.

Any thoughts on this would be appreciated.

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Only make notes you believe will be useful.
If you think the use will be temporary, limit the time you spend crafting them.
A collection of highlighted sections may be sufficient, without formal notes.

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My advice is to keep the early notes concise but completely accurate. They may turn out to be trivial later but they are most likely fundamental to everything that follows. “A [note] is finished not when nothing more can be added but when nothing more can be taken away” - Voltaire

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Hi, I have had the same problem in the past, and my solution to it is to read the entire book before you take any notes, then you will have a good idea what it’s about and that will make you prioritize better.
The first argument that probably comes to mind is that this method is time consuming, but the fact that you now only create high quality notes will save you the time that you would otherwise spent on low quality notes.
I hope this was helpful :slight_smile:

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If the notes are helpful now then make them. If they’re trivial later then delete them. I have plenty of trivial notes that I later purge.

I only take notes on an idea if I can think of some moderately relevancy to existing notes and/or to my interests (ways to measure product-market fit, a framework to organize knowledge, economic frameworks to quantify cost of delay in project management, etc).

If I feel something may be relevant but there isn’t any note about it in the vault, I would just take notes from articles and other sources first, and then return to the book. This is to gather some different introductory perspectives on the matter, so that you don’t get caught up in the book’s perspective (narrative). Sometimes books can be very shallow, so the idea is to be less reliant upon any particular book to understand ideas and applications.

Also, I try to delay taking notes as late as possible. I usually see that books have a tendency to make statements without any backup, and only return to that statement later on when the pieces of the explanation have been presented, in which case this heuristic helps me take notes when substantial explanations have been established. In the worst case, that statement is never backed up, in which case this heuristic helps reduce waste.

Another thing, not very related to note-taking, but I drop books frequently and switch to other books as needed. Reading a whole book may not be as efficient as just looking at the table of content to see what you want to read and just read that. So normally, I would have 3, 4 books at any given time on a particular subject.

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I don’t take notes on books.
I take full text quotations, so I can reread the book faster if needed or reaccess the original content of interest faster. I use one file/note per book and the page number is the header of each quotation. It allows me to use text search to pinpoint on every quotation that is about the subject I’m searching, and then reuse the direct quotation on personal notes.

Think about movies and taking notes on these. Taking notes is like listing still pictures of the moments of interest and write some quick words on these. Or you can list each 10/20s video snippet of those same moments and you have a far better and accurate ressource.

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As a college instructor teaching history (and by implication knowledge management and note taking) it really depends on your purpose for the reading that determines how you should read. Different purposes require different strategies. E.g. general interest in the world, project specific/research, general understanding of argument, etc. this also depends on source type, fiction, non-fiction, movies, etc. And naturally, as others have mentioned, if it doesn’t interest you at any point, drop it (though consider whether your assumptions are wrong)

However, at a bare minimum you should get a few general elements of a book if you are going to bother touching it (IMHO).

First, you should know a bit about the author before you begin if possible (~5-10min)

Second, read introduction to decipher a kind of draft argument and argument structure. This would include mapping out chapters and headings if present. (~30-40min)

Third, if the book seems to offer something worth exploring beyond what you have already gathered, dig slightly further down by reading introductions and conclusions (sometimes in reverse order depending on the author’s style) of each chapter - all while evaluating whether it’s worth reading the chapter at all. (~1hr)

Fourth, go no further unless you have a vested interest in knowing the details of the book. By this point you have the authors perspective, books argument, argument structure, and conclusions - do you need anymore? If so, pick and choose where to dig deeper. Are you reading for style, argument style, evidence, insight, etc - dig in looking for each.

With the above there are some clear assumptions that should probably be made.

  1. Assume that if the book is worth it, you will “read” it multiple times.

  2. Especially in regards to the prior point, assume that your “reading” will change over time depending on your context and perspective at the time of consumption. What you get out of it depends on time and place, and is not universal.

  3. Rewriting notes will likely happen as you revise assumptions, but it can be good practice to record your thinking as well as notes from the source.

  4. Distinguish between ideas you get from the text and ideas you have because of the text if you can decipher them in your mind.

  5. I usually pass this out to my students and those that I coach to help along with this process.

  6. For those books you have a vested interest in, take notes throughout. Don’t wait

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I switched my reading style to go through the whole book first before reading more in depth and taking notes.

There are a several methods for this style of reading. “How to read a book” by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler break down reading into 4 levels (Elementary, Inspectional, Analytical, and Syntopical). The Inspectional reading phase involves reading the table of contents, preface/introduction, headings, index, and pivitol chapters to get an idea of the structure of the whole before reading in depth.

The SQ3R method and other similar methods also start with “skimming” or a quick read through. I think of this as understanding a skeleton of a thing before adding in other elements and “fleshing out” the idea with notes.

I used to just start at the beginning and try taking notes as I went. It was not very effective. Stumbled onto the SQ3R method here and my notes are now incredibly better.

I personally do well with pictures/images and logical structure over rote memorization. The more humorous the image, the better. I still remember that Spinoza was a key philosopher on pantheism because of a picture I drew of a guy with a giant nose dressed in a trenchcoat and hat like an old school spy. He was in a tree about to jump down on top of a panther. Your mileage may vary.

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wow it is so interesting seeing the SQ3R method appear again. I used it in high school when I was a junior and it had been introduced the year before that. By the time I became a senior, the teachers decided not to implement it anymore. For students who weren’t understanding how to use the method, many of them were resorting to cheating, and the range of students who were writing too little vs. too much content was large.

In my opinion, SQ3R is a great method overall. I always found it worth it and enjoyable to put in all the time to make a good SQ3R assignment. It was helpful for grabbing the big ideas of concepts, though it wasn’t very helpful for specific definitions or rote textbook questions from tests. However, I’m not sure if I really used it as a method for skimming.

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The problem often with this is you do not really know what will be relevant or not in the future. That is why in Sonke Ahrens recommended in his book on the zettelkasten that you just input everything you find interesting into the zettelkasten. You may end up taking notes and never using them because your studies or professional life takes you in a completely different direction than you think.

The more you work with a set of information, the more trivial it will feel. That is just because the information is getting internalized in your human memory system. But it still can be useful because the act of inputting and connecting the information into a zettelkasten is a form of elaboration. Elaboration itself is considered a great learning technique, as it forces you to truly understand what you are reading.

I’d also add that this well trodden information may serve useful because it can serve as an anchor point to connect disparate pieces of information to, perhaps helping you see a hidden relationship between concepts in the future.

This is my somewhat related post I found in my notes

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Here is where I think it is important to index things with a location in the textbook. Copy over the table or contents or have a list of concepts that are covered as you go with some keywords. Import the items you think are the most important and take notes on them. Leave the rest in the book with a mention of it via ToC or some other method.
Later, when you are putting ideas together and you link into something you previously skimmed and didn’t take notes on, now you know where to go to find the information and you’ll have a better understanding of the main points from the book and how what you are now reading again fits into that framework.

Do you actually purge them? I’m in a state where I’ve got too many in progress notes that aren’t providing much value and still I can’t force myself to delete those.

yeah I re-evaluate notes when my main file area becomes too full (maybe 10-15 ish)

I either file them, create a new folder or delete them.

Maybe it’s better to think of in progress notes as a waste of time. The note was too long or not interesting enough for you to finish the thought. I never add singleton notes anymore, only in clusters of 3+

If I can’t generate 3 ideas then I just don’t bother.

Really just say fuck it and delete them.

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Could you please share one of your book notes (or a part of one)?

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any examples would be awesome.

@anthonysnell got two more thoughts for you. Didn’t realize I already commented on this earlier. Since you posted this all the way back in June, I’m curious what you ended up deciding on for a strategy?


Notes for Understanding

If you think it’d help, one way to approach this is to create notes for understanding. This is basically like creating a concept map.

  1. Notes for each concept
  2. Notes showing the relationship between concepts
  3. Notes showing how all the concepts fit together (top-down)

This can be very time consuming but also useful if you are having difficulty understanding the material. As it really forces you to externalize all the information and make sure you understand it.


Notes for Reference

If you don’t want to do all that work another approach would be to create bibliography notes that are essentially idea indexes. I have bibliography folder in my vault, where each note titled is “(Author Last Name, Year)”. Then the notes itself is

  • Bibliography Entry
  • Author’s Goal
  • My Goal in Reading the Book
  • Idea Index

The Idea Index is just a list of important ideas/concepts that I came across while reading, alongside the page numbers on where to find them. If I created a note already on the idea or I find it very important I will also put a link to it.