How To Take Notes

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Sunday, 7.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The true art of memory is the art of attention. – Samuel Johnson

What is worth learning and what is not, and how do you tell the difference?

I have just cancelled our subscription to a well-known online library service because in its collection of over a million books there is very little of any quality. One of my children, after reading through a dozen or so titles, said that some were good but most were trash. I wonder if what happens to subscription services is the same thing that happens with subprime mortgage debt and junk bonds – where you package a ton of rubbish with a few nuggets of gold and sell the whole lot to a hopeful counterparty. Yes you can find a title that is very good in there – but if it’s very good the author probably wants to sell it as a standalone piece.

What this tells us about life is that hoping for a bulk order of good stuff is not a good idea. We have more content than ever before but the vast majority of it is of poor quality. But as a consumer you have to decide what’s good and what’s not because the heuristics that helped us decide have changed. For example, anyone can publish a book now, so the chances are that most self-published books are not going to be very good. Some will be excellent, of course, but how can you tell? Well, you look at peer reviews, of course – which can be hacked by some people but, on the whole, you hope that content with lots of reviews is better than stuff that hasn’t been noticed by anyone. But is that enough – what if you’ve missed something important in the overlooked material – what if there is a gem hiding there?

These sorts of concerns aren’t new ones. The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann wrote about this and came up with a system of note-taking that he called a zettelkasten, a slip box with notes that had a unique management system. In his essay on learning how to read he talks about the difference between memorising something and learning something – about how to see what is essential and new and sets out something of a process that aspiring learners can follow.

The first thing to do is read selectively. What does that mean? In my case it means peer-reviewed papers as being better than books, which are in turn better than a mate’s opinions or a WhatsApp forward. The Internet has made it possible for us to access information easily but this always-on aspect can lead us to collect more material than we can possibly process. I wonder if it will help to decide what’s worth reading by actually printing it out – if it’s a paper you think is worth spending time on then print it out. There’s a barrier – a small one – but it will filter out a whole lot of rubbish.

If you have a printout of something useful then you’re going to want to engage with it. That’s where annotation and highlighting come in – and where the margins play a role in learning. Writing in the margins and pointing to things you find interesting when you read the material is going to help fix it more firmly in your mind. Although it might actually be a good idea to slow yourself down a little bit more. For example John Locke’s advice on making commonplace books makes two suggestions: first, “extract only those things which are choice and excellent”; second, read the whole thing first then only on the second reading mark out what you want to make note of. This process of slowing yourself down, of insisting on taking your time and going through something again before you spend your time trying to understand and remember it has one huge benefit. You will not want to do it – so you will not do it for things that are not worth it. So, when you do force yourself to make a note it will be for something you want to remember.

This really comes back to how you want to use your time. The only thing that’s fixed is time – the one thing that you cannot change. So what you want to try and do is spend your time doing the highest quality work you can do and that means creating barriers, creating reasons why you should not do anything unless it’s absolutely worth doing.

Then, the last bit of the process of reading is to write what you’ve learned in your own words – not trying to remember what’s been said but to frame it in a way that makes sense to you. For Luhmann, this meant writing it down in his own words. For me, it often means drawing a model, like the one that starts this post. The important thing is that you use your own voice, you write something that is original. One obvious benefit of doing this is that you won’t breach copyright if you use those words later in a paper or publication. And, when you use your own words these days you might also want to consider whether you just use paper or consider other media. But that’s a different subject.

The takeaway is that in an always-on culture where you can have everything it’s up to you to create the habits and processes that make sure you focus on what is “choice and excellent.”

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

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