Taking Notes on Physical Books - How to Read with a Pen

Reading Notes

I’m always experimenting with how I take notes when I read a non-fiction book.

My goals when reading includes the following:

  1. Read from anywhere without much distraction.
  2. Obtain a general understanding of the key concepts.
  3. Have an easy way to refer back to the ideas in the book.

The Digital Approach

For a while, I used a Kindle to make highlights that would sync to Readwise. While I enjoy reading on the Kindle, I still prefer reading non-fiction in physical form. I was also never returning to my highlights in Readwise, and even the daily review feature in Readwise became a distraction.

Reading With a Pen

I wanted a system for taking notes with physical books, and I recently stumbled upon a video from Cal Newport that shows his reading process. I thought I would give his method a shot.

Cal describes his reading process as follows:

  1. Read with a pen.
  2. When you find something interesting, add a block to the side of the text, then add a slash to the top corner of the page.
  3. Mark anything of significant importance with a star next to it.

That’s it! No notes. No highlights.

I used this process for the last book I read, How to Calm Your Mind by Chris Bailey. I thought I would give it a shot. 

I’m confident this is the first time I ever marked up a physical book, and it felt a little weird at first. However, the technique is so simple it doesn’t get in the way of the reading. Also, my book can be easily skimmed when I want to reference something in the future.

Marking up a page in a physical bookMarking up a page in a physical book

The Personal Index

In addition to marking up the pages, I also read about a technique (I can’t find the source) where you create a personal index at the back of the book. This index is where you would briefly describe the key ideas and terms you found interesting in the book. Of course, each item would have a page reference.

My personal index at the back of the bookMy personal index at the back of the book

While this personal index often overlaps the actual index of the book, this is personalized to what you find interesting. It also gives you a quick way to find something in the book in the future.

Creating a Book Summary

After reading the book, I wanted to create a brief book summary that I could share and reference in my notes. I did this using Craft and published my notes for this particular book here

My summary included quotes from the book and many notes written in my own words. This process took a little less than 2 hours.

The summary was worth it for three reasons:

  1. It allowed me to go back through the book and solidify my understanding.
  2. It gives me notes in my note system that I can reference and connect to other notes.
  3. I was able to share my notes with others.

Would I Do This Again?

Would I use this technique again? Yes! I thought it was a great way to read the book without many distractions, and then coming back to do the summary was extremely helpful. I’ve already started this on my next book.

What would I do differently?

  1. I don’t expect to summarize every book, only those worthwhile. 
  2. I’ll skip the personal index in the book. At least I won’t create it while reading; it was a pain. If I’m making a digital summary with page numbers, I can use that to go back through the book when I need to find something.