For a bit of follow-up on this morning’s post—
It struck me that there’s a really important thing implicit in the whole question that’s perhaps worth making explicit. That is: it’s worth doing the work of capturing what you’re reading, at least when it’s relevant to something you’re studying. This isn’t necessarily obvious, and especially if you have a good memory, you can often get by in shorter-form writing and day-to-day conversation by relying on your memory. It’ll get you close enough that you can say, “Oh, so-and-so says this,” or even fall back to “I wish I could remember where I read this…”
But when you want to do something a bit more substantive—say, a medium-length essay, or a detailed book review, much less a long-form essay or academic paper or (good grief!) a book—well, then you need a way of actually keeping track of what you’ve read and where you read it.
I’m in the very early reading phases for a research project I’d like to tackle over the next year (and possibly much longer): namely, developing at least for myself a more coherent ethics of technology.1 And one thing I learned in one of my largest projects at Southeastern Seminary (a summary of a variety of theological systems as represented by reading thousands of pages of introductions to them and writing about 80,000 words of summary of those pages) was the importance of taking careful notes on what I read and then being able to reference and make use of those notes later.
But that project also left me deeply, deeply frustrated, because nothing I tried actually satisfied me as a way of taking notes in a way I could reference later.
Writing quotes out by hand is laborious, and it doubles the work you have to do with that reference when you need to incorporate it into a paper or essay later: you’re often enough going to end up typing it out either way. But on the other hand, writing down a quote inscribes something into your mind in a way that tapping on a keyboard doesn’t. (This is part of why I outline every talk, teaching session, and sermon I deliver by hand!)
Similarly, while I’ve developed a system for marking up books in a way that’s reasonably unobtrusive but is easy to understand,2 finding that markup in the text of a book has its own issues. I’ve resorted to dog-earing pages with the most important quotes and ideas in the past, but found this dissatisfying. I know some people use colored page markers, and I need to try that as an approach (though it offends my aesthetic sensibilities as much or more than dog-earing in its own way!).
And the inciting incident for this blog post: I was thinking as I read a helpful article by Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic and then saved it to pinboard that it’s a lot of work to do this kind of thing. But if you don’t do it, you’re floundering around and hoping that your memory or DuckDuckGo or the combination of the two will get you back to where you need to be for some or another bit of research you’re doing… and good luck with that. In my experience, the more I’ve read on a topic, the harder it can be to remember exactly where I read a particularly important idea.
So that’s why I’m curious about people’s research tools.
You can see this as my following some of the same kinds of paths being worn down right now by writers and thinkers like Alan Jacobs and L. M. Sacasas, and it’s certainly not new as a line of thinking for me—see a related post here, for example.↩︎
I use brackets to mark off important quotes, the same way someone might use a highlighter, because I hate highlighted books myself. I’ll underline especially important bits. I jot comments notes in the margins. I mark places where I disagree sufficiently strongly with an “x” and where I agree sufficiently strongly with a check mark or an exclamation point. Things that are essential items in the argument of the book—i.e. things which articulate or are central to argument for the thesis of the book—I’ll mark in the margins with a star. Nothing complicated!↩︎