Notetaking for fun and profit.

If you read a book, how much of it do you retain a few months after finishing it? If you try to recall, can you recall more than the summary on the back? I’ve always found it really hard to retain anything more than broad strokes of any book I’ve read.

I was in San Francisco for a Stripe event where Andy Matuschak gave a talk about why books don’t work. While I’m not sure I agree with the premise that books just don’t work, I do agree that you need extra effort if you really want to internalize knowledge from books.

Enter notetaking. I’ve been taking notes on books I read for the last year and it’s been quite helpful. I started with just taking notes for books, but now I use dendron at work too.

A lot of the notes are interesting trivia that I know I’ll forget if I don’t jot down. Writing things down helps me remember things better because it means that I’m not endlessly consuming words, I’m also producing something, even if it is just a few sentences rephrasing the text I read. Once you produce something about a topic, you know it much better.

Another habit I’ve picked up is scrolling through the notes every so often, which leads to a kind of spaced repetition, helping me retain things better.

Notes can also be quite a good unit of knowledge to be gained. Instead of setting goals of the number of pages / chapters you want to read, you can set a goal of quantity of quality notes you want to take. Books can have different levels of density. Trying to read X pages or Y chapters every week is hard, and setting good values of X and Y for every different book can be quite difficult.

Another interesting benefit I’ve had with writing notes is that the amount of content I produce has quite dramatically increased. Now that I have a place to write stuff without it needing to be a blog post that others might find interesting, I write a lot more. Most of it will probably never be useful to anyone but me, but I have a feeling the archive will be quite valuable to me a few years down the line.

So yes, I hope this blog post convinces you to try out a workflow where you take notes. If you do, let me know how it goes!