Making Reading Notes can create a personal library of valuable ideas
Reading furnishes the mind only with the materials of knowledge; it is thinking that makes what we read ours. — John Locke
When I read a library book, especially one that has been borrowed from a distant library, I was sometimes afraid to return the book, afraid I had missed something of importance, something valuable. It may have been this experience that pushed me into the practice of taking reading notes. It is such a helpful way of reading that I continue to practice, even with books I own.
What are reading notes?
Reading notes are similar to the notes we take in lectures. The goal is to to write down the main ideas and a few significant details. With lecture notes, we are at a disadvantage. We can’t put the lecturer on ‘pause’, while we catch up, while we reflect on what we have heard or decide if it really is important. With reading notes we don’t have that problem. We can also turn back a few pages to reconsider the value of an earlier idea.
When we make reading notes, we want to discover and summarize the main ideas, showing the structure if one is found. We can list and define unfamiliar terms. And we attempt to uncover the hidden gems. With reading notes, we begin with the firm intention of reading the chapter only once.
Students who plan to re-read a chapter are telling themselves they don’t really need to understand what they are reading, They drift past the words in a fog, highlighting anything that looks vaguely like it might be important. But they often have no idea what any of it really means. It is like tiptoeing through a palace in the dark, and later claiming to have been there, to have seen the marvelous tapestries and great paintings. How much more they’d have seen and remembered if they had turned on the lights, examined each treasure and taken pictures so they could remember and enjoy their experience again and again.
The picture on the right shows Mei Lei with her reading notes. She is going back over the best of the best: the main ideas, the most important details, and a few quotes and other treasures she wants to reflect on and enjoy reading again and again.
How do we start?
Most textbooks are not well-written. They often don’t have a well-organized structure of main ideas. You need to decide if note-taking makes sense. I would not take reading notes in most math books or in books for learning a foreign language.
Determine your purpose for taking notes.
Is this a textbook and you want to do well exams? Your purpose is to learn the main ideas and important details.
Is this book a novel you are reading for class? Your purpose might be to analyze the plot, to describe how the setting affected the plot, to understand the characters, their motivation and their failings, to describe the theme of the book and the author’s style of writing.
Is this a book you are using for research? Your purpose might be learning current research in the field, finding relevant information including sections you might quote in your paper, or finding details and examples that will help support your thesis
Is this a book related to a possible future career? You will want to understand the key concepts and then practice the skills or review the material periodically so you can apply the ideas on your job.
Is this a book you are reading because the content seems exciting or interesting? You will probably take notes on the material that is most interesting or exciting. You might check the bibliography to find other books on the topic or books by the same author.
Is this a book you are reading for pleasure? You might not want to take notes. Since I am also working on writing a mystery, I often read good mysteries for pleasure but I take notes on how the author described the setting, what details made characters seem real, how the suspense began to build, what made this book memorable rather than one of those books you read quickly and then forget even more quickly.
For most of my reading over the past several years, my purpose has been exploring new research related to the website or learning about study methods and how other authors cover the subject. Some books I skim through quickly, looking for wonderful statements I can quote. With other books, I realize that the content is extremely important and I take many pages of detailed notes. I sometimes put a giant asterisk and a note indicating which section of the website it is related to.
Decide how to take notes.
You might have a separate notebook for reading notes or you might use loose-leaf paper and then organize the material in a binder.
I started taking reading notes years ago when I was traveling a lot. and I discovered some small binders about 7 x 4.5 inches. They hold about 80-100 sheets of paper and I bought many refills. As these notebooks were harder and harder to find, I bought up every one I could find. I now have at least 50-60 tiny notebooks, most filled with notes from great books I have studied over the past 30 years or so. These notebooks are no longer available. If I were to start over, I’d write on loose sheets of notebook paper and keep them organized in a series of binders.
Copy bibliography information on the first page
When taking notes, I always begin with the Author, title, Publisher name, location, and date of publication. I now add two more items – location of the book…. since I live in one place during the winter, and another during the summer I like to know which library the book was in. I also add the month and year that I read it.
I choose a short word or set of initials to mark my pages. It might be the author’s name or brief title and next to this I put the number of the page. So my first page might say in the upper right: “Imagine 1” The next pages are Imagine 2, Imagine 3, etc. If my papers get mixed up, they are easy to put back in place.
Survey the book
When survey the book including the Table of Contents, I try to get a clear image of the structure. If the Table of Contents is really great, I might copy it, or at least, copy the main section headings. When I go back over my notes weeks, months or years later, I appreciate having the overview.
Then, according to your purposes, begin to take notes. The secret is NOT to write too much. You don’t want to copy half the book. But you should get down the main ideas – usually in your own words, important details, definitions, formulas, dates, etc. Occasionally you might want to include a few quotes, marked clearly with quotation marks.
Include important page numbers
If you ever want to refer to this material in a paper, even if it is not a direct quote, you will need to include the page number. You really don’t want to find the book again and spend hours looking for the correct page. Or perhaps you read your notes again next year and you realize you’d like more details. Finding the book and page quickly is a big help. It doesn’t take long to write a page number.
You MIGHT want to add two other kinds of information.
Add your own ideas clearly marked
Sometimes I disagree with an author. Sometimes I see connections in this book with something I read recently. Sometimes I just get some wonderful new ideas or exciting questions. My system is to write ME and circle it. Then I can add my own thinking at that point When done, Write END ME and circle it.
Sometimes these reflections are the most important information in the notes. This website is much more than a collection of quotations from books about studying. The most important parts of the website pages are my new insights and the connections I have made from the research to what it means for college students who are trying to learn, to understand, and to remember.
Finally, I add Reflections at the end
I write the word Reflections and underline it. I might comment on how helpful or unhelpful the book was, or how outdated. I might describe all the ways I can use the information in the book. I might note that the first three chapters will be helpful in the website pages on Learning Differences, the seventh chapter might be relevant to critical thinking, etc. The author might recommend or refer to another book that seems interesting or important. I often make lists of books or articles I really want to read or buy.
Organize your Reading Notes
Add a page or two at the front of your binder to be your table of contents. As you add notes to the binder, add the title information in the Table of Contents. For example, “Freshman Bio chap 1,” or “Norman Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself,” etc.
When you are looking for your notes, you’ll be glad you did this. I would even put a star by the Normal Doidge book and others that I considered extraordinarily good or important. His book is one of the most exciting and valuable I’ve read in the past ten years.
How are Reading Notes helpful?
1. When you make reading notes, you read more actively, searching for the main ideas and important details. You learn more, understand it better and will remember it longer.
2. You should not need to read the chapter again. This saves a lot of time.
3. If you have taken good notes, you can review them as they are, use them to create an outline, concept map, or other pattern of organization.
4. Reviewing notes regularly, once the day you wrote them, daily for a few days, and then weekly, will mean you do NOT need to do extra study for an exam. Another quick review and you’ll be ready.
5. Having good reading notes that you can review occasionally makes long-term learning possible If you want to remember this information ten years from now, continue to review every two weeks, then monthly, four times a year, and then yearly. This information will then be yours for lifetime.
6. As the title of the page says, ” Making Reading Notes can create a personal library of valuable ideas.” What valuable ideas would you like to have in your personal library?
If you have not read Asking Questions, you might want to read that next.
The next sections of Verbal Processing Strategies are Outline and Summary
Yes, you probably know how to outline and summarize and you may hate them like I did. But here, these are used as verbal processing strategies, methods to help you understand the material better and to help you be well-prepared for a test.