About My Reading Notes

Welcome to my reading notes page.

These notes serve as a map for myself to navigate some ideas and information I have encountered in my intellectual adventures. A note is a way to record my engagement with a text, and it naturally grows over time and helps me retain more of what I read1. I enjoy revisiting ideas and comparing them across works—taking notes in Obsidian is lends itself to this linked note-taking. Taking notes, especially summarizing or reflecting on a work, is an opportunity to think more deeply about what I read.

Why bother sharing these notes online? My primary audience is my future self and it's handy to be able to reference these notes from anywhere with a web browser. It's also convenient to share the URL for a note with someone. Finally, if you stumble across these and find them useful that's great! Here are some others who share their notes and reading lists on the internet.

These notes range from a few quotes I wanted to save (Walden and Walking) to detailed notes and reflections (After Virtue and Witness to Hope). In general, more recent notes are more detailed as I have sought to slow down and engage more deeply with what I read.

I practice a version of The Fractal-Summary Method of reading, where the unit of text summarized is a function of the text itself and the amount of time I invest in it. Ideally, I summarize at least at the chapter level.

My process for producing these notes is approximately as follows:

Before reading (often long before I even own a book) I create a note in Obsidian. I use the obsidian-book-search-plugin to populate metadata about the book. I also use this template for the remainder of the note: ~Templater-Book Note

For physical books I own I will underline and write in the margins as I read. My annotation convention includes:

  • underline key passages (with a star to emphasize the most important)
  • brackets around less important or longer sections
  • numbers for concepts that can be represented as a list
  • circles around key names or concepts at the beginning of the section that discusses them
  • rectangles around words I don't know
  • arrows pointing at books mentioned I want to look into
  • notes in the margins or at the bottom of the page for paragraph- or page-level summaries
  • notes on the last page of the chapter with the chapter-level summary

After reading, or ideally after reading a section, I transcribe these notes to Obsidian, usually rather less than I originally annotated but with page numbers so I can come back to that place in the text. Finally I add my personal summary or reflection to synthesize my encounter with the text. Physical books I own represent about 50–60% my reading historically, but recently have become closer to 80-90% as I focus on engaging with the text more which really requires a physical copy that I can mark up.

For physical books I do not own—borrowed from the library or a friend—I take notes while reading in Obsidian or with a pen on a piece of paper if I want a fully disconnected reading experience. Physical books I do not own represent about 10% my reading.

For audiobooks from my library played through the Overdrive app, make bookmarks as I go along. When the book is finished, I use a simple Google Sheet to interpolate the % complete vs page number so I can revisit the bookmarks in the physical text and take notes as appropriate. Audiobooks used to be a significant fraction of my "reading" (30–40%), but have since diminished as I both engage deeper with reading that requires a physical text and preserve "audio time" for select podcasts or listening to The Bible.

For electronic books on Kindle or in a PDF I highlight while reading and then bring these notes into a markdown file in Obsidian as above. I tend to massively over-highlight, especially on Kindle, which is why I always prefer reading a physical copy. The effort it takes to type a thought or transcribe a passage is a helpful filter. Electronic books represent less than 5% of my reading.

I mentioned my template file which has a few standard elements:

  • metadata: title, author, publisher, year published, number of pages, image
  • before "notes" I will add a personal summary or reflection for books I engage with the most
  • the table of contents is populated using a Sublime Text plugin for longer notes (and enclosed in and HTML <details> tag to collapse it)
  • chapter dividers, with a summary section for each
  • a section for bibliography and new words to track the most important or interesting books referenced as well as the definition of any new words I come across in the text (as of 2022-06 my bibliography consists of a simple query like file:(<%tp.file.title%>) which allows me to note referenced works sprinkled throughout the note and see a consolidated list in this section)

Since moving my reading note markdown files to Obsidian in 2020-2021 I have been able to engage with them much more deeply than before by linking related ideas across books. I have also revisited notes more frequently and added to them as I read more related topics. This is still new to me and I'm excited to see how these connections organically emerge over time.

To publish my notes from Obsidian to my website, this script grabs each markdown file, converts it HTML, inserts the HTML in a template, and saves a copy of both the markdown and HTML to Github as a backup and to publish.

Created: 2021-09-02-Thu
Updated: 2023-02-04-Sat

  1. cf. Pierre Bayard, How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read] (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007)