Saturday, July 02, 2005

An Open Question To Serious Readers*

*By whom, I mean people for whom reading is an essential part of their professional lives.

How do you take notes on what you read?

I would really like feedback on this question, so please, anyone who flips by this blog, please plop out a response or two.

It's almost inevitable that any responses I get will start with "It depends what I'm reading and why," and this would be my response as well. I'm interested in knowing these particulars. If you've figured out how to coordinate or manage notes that you took for one genre with another, or one purpose with another, I'm especially interested in hearing about it.

Below the fold, I'm going to try to explain what sorts of experiences motivated this question. I'd much rather you answer my question than read my blatherings, though... I want data!

[Update: Since I would really like to hear from as many people as possible about this, I would urge anyone who passes by here and is interested in this question to link, trackback, ask the question on their own site, eamil me, whatever. If this question has been asked in other fora, please let me know. I don't care about linking to this site; I just want to hear other people's solutions!]

Here's what I'm working with as a note-taking system so far.

In my field, which can be broadly categorized as "English," I read all kinds of wildly different material that bear on my dissertation subject. Some of this material can be called fiction, and those with plots tend to get read fast; in these books, I may keep a running list of character-names and big themes. Some of it is poetry, which lends itself to slow, close reading. Some of it is theoretical, meaning that my marginal notes will involve lots of fine-level paraphrasing but that my memory will retain big swathes of argument. You might notice that I'm talking about what my notes look like in my physical copy of the book.

The notes I take on my computer are much less immediate. I don't tend to read next to my computer unless I have a very specific, directed project, but when I do, my notes contain an absolutely anal bibliographic citation with publication record, a brief summary, and then chunks of quotes I think interesting. Maybe some analysis, but it'll be brief. These notes are MS Word files that refer--now--to a central Endnote system.

And now a couple of anecdotes.

1) When I was a young, fresh-faced graduate student, I TAed for a gradually retiring Professor for whom I had (and still have) an overwhelming respect: someone who really changed his field and did so with absolute scholarship and integrity. He let me use his office for my TA office hours, as he was spending most of his time in the house with a garden anyway. So, since none of the students wanted to meet with the lowly TA, I spent most of my office hours reading the marginal comments in this revered professor's books. He had a trick of very minimal marginal notes: ticks, boxing, maybe an occasional "no!" He also kept a scrap of paper in every book with jotted page numbers, maybe the beginning of a quote, and bits of a fragmentary shorthand that usually made no sense to me. Since this professor was someone I admired, I tried this system out for awhile. But then I realized that these jottings had to refer to a more permanent file, unless one was, like him, able to keep library books in one's centralized office indefinitely. And I hate retyping notes.

2) I recently ran into a very very bright fellow graduate student who had just taken her oral exams. We chatted a bit about how the last weeks of the run-up to the exam could literally make one feel insane, and I mentioned how weird it had felt when, having already taken my exams, I heard my friends about to take theirs talking about taking two or three weeks to review, collate, and then review again their notes. I said something along the lines of: "Yeah, I was taking notes on my computer, and now, writing my dissertation, I'm glad I took them, but collating those files into thematic and historical narratives was more than I was up for then!" And this very bright fellow graduate student replied: "I didn't even have computer files! I just took notes in the margins of my books." I remain astounded.

3) One of the stalwart members of my Kant reading group, and the only one who has read the first Kritik before, comes to each session with a plastic document folder. This houses his detailed outline of the book's argument. I leaned over one time and asked: "How many pages of notes is it?" Around 35, was the answer. "Do you always take notes like this?" He replied: "My goal is to never have to reread books." I have this image in my head of his home library filled with books and neat little plastic-foldered summaries of them.

4) A friend of mine who briefly roomed with me sometimes reviewed books for B+ tier revues. She would pass along things she thought I might enjoy. Knowing her tastes and reading her reviews, I would read these copies with a voyeuristic eye for marginalia. Usually, I would only findbetween 4-7 broad circlings of text: passages she thought interesting or symptomatic enough to cite in a review.

5) Then there's the digital revolution. Reading the blogs of more *cough* advanced academics, I hear stories of data storage, cross-indexing, and software one-upsmanship that make my eyes pop out. Some of these personal data-management stories come from academics in fields with more quantative disciplines than I do (Brad DeLong software needs, for example, will necessarily be more sophisticated than mine), but even humanities types are blogging about software that puts my MS Word expertise to shame. So, I consulted my local library's digital wizards about moving data into EndNote, they helped me out, I learned how to scan books directly into PDF files, and I come back to the original question: how does one manage to take and organize useful notes? Scanning my entire library would only aggravate the problem, I think.

So what do you do? Which of the above techniques are no longer useful? How are you managing your digital-paper interfaces? Have you figured out a note-taking system that doesn't involve buying books?

[UPDATE: The Little Professor, writing about changing attitudes towards marginalia, gives her data. Not like she read my question, but there's her answer for ya. I'm interested to see that she manages to use her marginal notes to piece together lectures; that did not work out so well for me when I tried it.]


Blogger bitchphd:

For work reading, I've kind of settled on listing full bibliographic info at the top of a clean sheet of paper, page #s in the left-hand margin, and quotes or summaries. If notes go over a page, I repeat the author & work (but not full biblio) at the head of each new page, with a page #.

It's lame, though, b/c it's not really searchable. In my fantasy world, I would then enter all those notes into a computer, but I'm way too lazy to actually do that.

Maybe I should force my research assistant to ... (evil cackle)

7/02/2005 10:11:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Do the notes generally only take one page? Is the piece of paper attached to or bound in a notebook? Do you file the paper afterwards?

(I really do want to know...)

7/03/2005 02:06:00 PM  
Blogger hilzoy:

Work reading: notes on legal pad, eventually stored in folders or notebooks (when I'm actively working on whatever it is) (and if there are too many files/notebooks to keep track of which is which, I take it as a sign to make some gesture at reorganization) or in file folders (later, or if it's a snippet of an idea. There's a file folder called 'ideas'.)

Except, of course, when it's a purely textual note, or a thought about e.g. a sentence in Kant. In that case, it goes in the book. Drawback: getting a new copy when the old one falls apart is a drag. Good part: always there when you need it. Prerequisite: tiny microfiche handwriting.

Non-work-reading notes: the empty back pages of the book, unless it's too long, in which case it goes in the files.

7/06/2005 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Hilzoy, no electronic form at all? Do you actually rewrite the legal pad notes into the notebooks?

I like the "Ideas" file folder!

7/06/2005 11:20:00 PM  
Blogger hilzoy:

No, no electronic form. I also compose philosophy longhand. pdfs live on my computer, as do other electronic things like searchable texts; also, all the written, typed-in versions of what I've written. (I use the typing-in process for editing.)

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