Literature Notes for the Library

July 17, 2020 • #

With the last several books I’ve read, I’ve been trying to force myself to work through and document literature notes for my highlights, key ideas, and takeaways from books. Using a process (that perhaps I’ll one day go through in greater detail here) in Roam, I’ll scan through all of my highlights and write up notes on the content, editing it into my own words and phrasing. One of the goals of this process is to increase retention and recall, and as Sonke Ahrens suggests, it’s best not to simply copy and paste highlighted text into a document.

Literature notes

With this flow, what typically happens is that I’ll only write a note for about 75% of what I’d originally highlighted, but also expand on some of them with additional thoughts. So for a book with roughly 200 highlights, I could end up with a Roam page of literature notes of, say, 250 or so blocks. Where relevant and possibly useful down the road, I also try and follow the threads to original sources and insert links to those, but not for everything. Wherever there’s specific data cited or something I find particularly worthy of a future read, I’ll capture it1.

I’ve been thinking about what I could do next with my Library to make it more useful and interesting. I want to find a way to publish my literature notes alongside or within those book pages. From the Library index page I could then mark which books have notes available and make them searchable and discoverable for anyone. This ties to a long-term goal I have to create a system for evergreen notes that could link between book notes and core ideas. Libraries of books are great, but what about one where you could quickly get access to the ideas within?

This is all experimental at this stage, but anecdote so far says I feel like I have a much deeper grasp on the material for which I’ve gone through this effort. If reading is for the purpose of building knowledge and retaining it, it should be well worth this up-front investment of time to get the payoff from all the reading I do. The next step is to incorporate the tactics of progressive summarization to enrich the literature notes and wire them in with other ideas. Being intentional about rediscovery and serendipitous resurfacing of information has been amazing at augmenting memory for me. Combining all of this with my regular use of Readwise makes reading such a more fulfilling experience.

  1. The best books have as much gold (or more) in the bibliography than in the body text.