How I keep a commonplace book

commonplace book
This post is a shortened, bare-bones version of a longer post I am writing for Ask Vinni, subscribe to the newsletter if you don’t wanna miss it!

I have, for a long time, heard people singing the praises of commonplace books. Many of the most important and intelligent people in history have kept those and I figured I should as well (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is one of them). For most of this year (starting around March), I have highlighted passages on my kindle (I do prefer paperbacks but since I still don’t have a very stable place to live, I’ve had to do with e-readers) and written them out on index cards a few days after finishing the book. Lately I’ve tried yet another method and what I will do here is outline both, since I have been using them side by side and I have been extremely happy with my results.

Index cards

This is fairly self-explanatory: whenever I come across an interesting passage, I highlight it and continue reading, this method makes it possible for me to read and focus on what the book is saying, taking it at face value, without having to stop and make notes in between.

After highlighting the main passages and finishing the book, I leave it aside for approximately a week and then revisit it, going over my highlights and writing what still feels particularly striking on a 4×6 index card. I categorize them, and write the date and source. Some of the categories I have include: legacy, life, strategy, self-improvement, learning, conduct, reminders, communication, leadership, etc.
After some time I realized it became little more than a collection of quotes, which to be fair still looks really cool and I refer back to them very often when writing or when met by a roadblock.

However, I felt like I was missing something, those were a little too shallow for my liking, so I needed a second system. I also needed to change my approach to reading, and I did do that.

My new note-taking method

I have to be honest now and say that this new method comes with a small downside: when riding buses or (some) trains, I am limited to reading fiction (which to be fair is not bad). My new approach to reading is much more like I would approach studying for a test or school than anything else, so I have limited myself to reading on my desk, or at least somewhere where I can write and take notes actively as well. I bought a file and dividers for A5 paper and take my notes on them.

I start a new division every time I start a new book, writing its title and date I started it on, and then just take sheets of paper with me wherever I go. I read the book with a pen in hand and write as I read. What I write are noteworthy passages, takeaways from a certain section or structures outlined in the book. Often I write other notes for myself that come up while reading or a comment of my own. After finishing the book I go over my notes to recall everything that is said in the book from the start, use crayons to highlight (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!) and categorize each of my notes by color, and only then putting it back.
I am very happy with this system I’ve developed, as I can often just go over my notes and will recall a great deal of the book, I will be sure I haven’t missed out on important information (it happened very often with index cards; if something important wasn’t particularly “quotable” I would not write it down) and as an added benefit, I get to write my own thoughts as I write, argue a little with the book and expand on what is going through my mind as I am reading a certain passage. Since I am using a file I can also always go over my notes and write down more things that come to me as I am reviewing everything.
This new approach makes me read more slowly and attentively, and since I will still be writing down the striking quotes on index cards and revisiting each book (now with the help of all I’ve written as I was reading it) after a week, I truly feel like I am getting the best of both worlds.
Ultimately, this makes me read a lot more slowly and therefore a lot less, but it makes me learn a lot more, which in the end is what truly matters.
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