Trying a New Book-Reading Strategy

Improving my approach to deep reading with better notes and my Zettelkasten.

December 26, 2018Filed under Blog#note-taking#reading#research#zettelkastenMarkdown source

Assumed Audience: people broadly interested in reading, writing, learning, and research systems.

Today I started trying a new(-to-me!) approach to deeply reading books, with some relatively light reading (so that I can get the practice).1 I’m hoping to be able to grow this skill and use it effectively for learning deeply in 2019. The strategy is pretty simple:

  1. Use very quick, light marks in the margins: for agreement, x for disagreement, ~ for something that’s worth noting as halfway right but worth clarifying, and * for key arguments. This is basically the tack I’ve taken for a long time, but I’ve dropped all underlining or bracketing from the process: they’re slow, and I’m not really persuaded they’re more helpful than just adding a quick mark, as the really helpful bits come later in my experience.

  2. On finishing reading each chapter (or major section):

    • Pull in the quotes I want to keep from it. Interact with them as makes sense.
    • Create a note with a short summary of the argument of the chapter. Link from it to the quotes.

    The goal here is to have a quick view into the contents of the chapter, including the various quotes that were particularly salient from it.

  3. On finishing the book, summarize the argument of the book by using the quotes and summaries of the chapters along the way to guide me in formulating my own interpretation of the author’s arguments. Add in some explicit interaction with the argument-in-sum.

Along the way, I’ll also write up other thoughts and interactions with the text, linking them to the other notes as makes sense.

Once I have these kinds of notes, I will have a lot of material available to put to whatever use. Most importantly, I will have done a lot more active thinking about the ideas I encountered, and will have quick access to those thoughts to build on later. But I will also be able to use both those quick references to the book and to my own thoughts as prompted by the book to generate writing prompts for blog posts, book reviews, teaching notes, and so on.

You’ll notice that this is quite similar in a number of ways to my approach to logging my work; that’s intentional. I have found that an extremely fruitful way to be able to quickly grasp what I have done over a given span. It seems likely that this variant on it will be equally useful for quickly grasping what I have read over a given span.

One other note: I will definitely not be doing this for everything I read. That would be laborious indeed! I plan to do this for books which I find to be of particularly high value this way. Many books simply do not warrant it, and indeed warrant little more than a quick skim (or to be put aside entirely). I wrote a couple days ago about my intent to use my time more carefully in 2019; one part of that is carefully distinguishing in how I read as well as what I read.


  1. I’m reading The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church, by Timothy Z. Witmer, as part of the elder training work at my church, as I have been nominated to and expect to stand for the office of elder in mid-2019. That might not seem like light reading to you, but I’ve read an awful lot of academic theology over the last decade and no few books in this same vein during my M. Div. work.