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A Typology of Book-Reading – Part III: Methods for Assimilation

In the third and final part of this article series, I describe four notable aspects of books; followed by various methods for assimilating information and thoughts generated through book-reading; whilst including examples and photographic samples throughout for illustration.

I read; therefore I am—but how can one assimilate?


As someone who began to read books regularly for the purpose of intellectual stimulation, I naturally discovered various ways to improve my conduct of book-reading towards higher degrees of efficiency. In this article, I describe the principles and methods derived from my experience in book-reading, which I offer for the potential benefit of similarly oriented individuals.
               Essentially, these principles and methods* concern the effective assimilation of information and thoughts from one’s reading experiences. However, as individuals tend to differ in their purpose for reading and capabilities of assimilation, factors of and methods for assimilating literature can apply differently on an individual basis—hence, the methods here are offered as tips for anyone who regularly reads literature; or at the least, as a stimulant to one’s thoughts on ways to make more effective use of their literature and more efficient use of their reading time.

*Neither ’principles’ nor ‘methods’ are meant in the strict sense of the word: rather, I use them to indicate realizations and developments arising from my personal experience—which of course remains an ongoing process for me.

The primary section of the article is entitled Methods for Assimilation, in which a variety of practical methods for enhancing one’s reading efficiency are described, including some insight into how – and therefore why – they arose within my experiences of book-reading.
               Preceding the methods is a section entitled Aspects of Books, being related factors that may also be of interest towards one’s book-reading endeavours. These factors can be thought of as modifiers of the classifications in Part I: Modes of Concentration, in that each one can apply to several if not all of the fourteen book-types classified there; and therefore, to the classifications in Part II: Moods for Comprehension as well, in that these factors can modify the reading experience of a particular book-type or subject.

*The Aspects section is a supplement to the Methods section; however, the latter is better read in consideration of the former, hence their reversal of order.

As with the previous Parts in this series, I have photographed sample pages and attached them at a high enough resolution for comfortable reading (by clicking the photo and selecting the “full size” option), by which a particular point I have made is illustrated.

Aspects of Books

Methods for Assimilation
Relaxed Mode

Aspects of Books

Footnoted Books

Although the use of footnotes is quite common, here I refer to books that are heavily footnoted by the author, the effect of which is a distinctly different reading experience than similar works (in subject and depth) that do not feature footnotes, or at least feature them only to a small extent.
               Footnoted books involve an alternating attention, in that the reader is frequently prompted to depart from the main text to begin what may be an elaboration of, or digression from, the last sentence(s) read. However, this aspect is not nearly as protracting as is the nature of Technical and Referential books, in that good reading momentum is still achievable—especially once the reader has adjusted reading speed to the degree of relevance each particular footnote offers to his own interest, thereby achieving a flowing discernment concerning the use of footnotes in this particular book.
               Hence, it can be worthwhile to consider the manner in and the extent to which a book is footnoted, should one wish to better match the demands of the book to his present reading mood and frame of mind.

Footnoted Book (Example)

Between Two Ages – America’s Role in the Technetronic Era
by Zbigniew Brzezinski (1970)

Itemized Books

Standard to the format of the book is the organization of information by division into a sequence of chapters. Some authors make a further division of the chapters into subheadings, which are usually included on the Contents page (which at this point, has likely become Contents pages).
                Further still, there is a specie of book that I will call itemized, due to its elaboration of subheadings: in the sense of both quantity and conceptualization, in that they are worded so as to convey not merely the topic of a subsection, but to express the core concept within it. Such books may also include sub-subheadings, or a division of chapters into ‘parts’, which either way makes for a threefold division of content;—but the aspect of conceptualization is what ultimately gives the book its itemized character.

                Reading such a book creates a distinctly different experience than that of one organized in the standard manner; and depending on the content and terminology, the experience can feel like a barrage of concepts and points—which is not necessarily a bad thing, provided that this form is suitable to the information conveyed.
               However, the more significant consequence of this aspect is that it invests the book with an added utility in future referencing: the itemized content makes it especially easy to quickly locate or sequentially trace most of the distinct concepts long after one has read the book, since the author has written and organized them in that way.

The text is divided by subheadings, thereby forming subsections; and these are typically no longer than a few pages each, which makes specific topics very easy to review in the future (the book is also indexed well, which completes its utility for quick referencing).

Additionally, this itemization of concepts is a factor to consider with regards to note-taking (to be discussed in Methods), in that it affords one to take an oblique approach to creating their own record of useful information taken from the book: Since the core concepts have been clearly delineated in the book and can thus be relocated and re-read with ease in the future, one can be more selective in the extent to which he records the concepts, perhaps trying an entirely different approach to the active assimilation of information.
               To further highlight this utility by contrast: Books with simpler Contents and Index pages – and particularly books without an Index – make it more difficult to relocate a particular concept at a future time, which can be frustrating. Hence, if such a book is dense with concepts or insights, it would be especially worthwhile to make a written record of the most noteworthy ideas and details (being sure to include references to the corresponding page numbers).

Stasiland – Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall
by Anna Funder (2003)

Synthesizing Books

Books which ‘synthesize’ are similar to those which trace the history of a theme *(as opposed to an event or a place). More specifically, however, their essential qualities are that they deal with a commonly known theme, i.e. rather than a specialized or obscure one; and that they are composed with an interpretive dimension, i.e. they do not merely present a narrative of events and chronological development, but seek to clarify a question and perhaps proffer an answer as well.

*See the Thematic (History Sub-Type) in Part II: Moods for Comprehension.

Due to these essential qualities, Synthesizing books can serve well as a primer on a subject; but better still, they can be utilized as a synthesizer of previous knowledge, i.e. the knowledge one has already gained from having read some of the works the book is based on; and, as the synthesis is generally in the form of a narrative, the Synthesizing book is rarely more than a moderately demanding read.
               Hence, it can be useful to recognize this quality in such books, in that one can then select an optimal state of knowledge or plan an optimal position in sequence at which to read the book, thereby enhancing the overall interaction with the subject, i.e. by first reading more source texts before reading a Synthesizing book on the subject; or conversely, by first reading the Synthesizing book as a primer on the subject, after which one is in a more informed position to select and interpret the core texts of most value to him.

The Passion of the Western Mind – Understanding the Ideas that have Shaped Our World View
by Richard Tarnas (1991)

Varieties of Fascism
by Eugen Weber (1964)

Digital Books

Many digital books are available freely via the internet (commonly stored as PDF files), thus offering a means to enlarge one’s resource of quality literature without cost—including that of physical space: Indeed, space rather than cost proves to be the bottleneck in the cultivation of a personal library, since printed books are so cheaply available via online second hand markets.

The Types & Benefits of Digital Books

Digital books are either scanned copies of paperback or hardcover books; or are digitized versions (eBooks) of them, i.e. a version of the physical book created specifically for the digital format.
                Scanned books are generally larger in file size than eBooks, as they are essentially image files rather than text files. However, they are usually formatted with OCR, which means that the text can be searched and highlighted—although sometimes the character recognition is not completely accurate*.
                eBooks are much more economical in file size and are as searchable as a Word document. Sometimes, they feature a linked Contents page allowing one to jump to a particular chapter immediately; as well as links to endnotes or to web pages—both of which representing standard conveniences of the digital format.

*But generally, this is only with older books for which the pages and text are of such type or condition that they are not clearly detected.

The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase
by Mark Forsyth (2013) [eBook Edition]

To summarise, the benefits of digital books are:

  1. The ability to enlarge one’s library freely—both in terms of money and space.
  2. The ability to search books for words and phrases—and furthermore, one can even search through multiple books simultaneously for a word or phrase.
  3. The ability to highlight passages easily, and – provided the software is obtained – export highlights to a text file for editing, reading, or printing.

The Utilization of Digital Books

Handling & Highlighting

I find that a tablet device (such as the iPad) is the best way to read digital books – as opposed to a computer – due to the comfortable size and portrait-view feature: for it comes far closer to recreating the experience of reading a physical book than a computer does.* Combined with the app iAnnotate, I find it the perfect way to read and highlight my digital books (and articles).

*Additionally, I selected my laptop based on its ‘convertible’ design, meaning that it can also operate as a tablet device: hence if I want to read documents or web pages without transferring them, I can do so more comfortably than when in laptop mode.

Black Mirror’s Dystopian Narrative on Technology, Social Media, Surveillance and the Technobody
by Marieke Masny (2015)
(Article, PDF)

A view of the iPad in portrait mode on its stand, on my desk, displaying an article I highlighted (which I do for most of the books and articles I read on the iPad). This particular article on the dystopian series Black Mirror is over 60 pages in length, with the format, features, and quality of a small book by a scholar in that field—and which I obtained (along with many others) simply by searching for “black mirror analysis pdf”: Thus is the value of digital books and literature, which are so freely available.

Printing Extracts

Although digital reading devices such as the iPad and Kindle do well to provide a comfortable way to read digital texts, the experience of viewing, handling, and marking a physical document is an inherently superior form of reading, in that its physical, tactile form is naturally conducive to a more direct engagement with the content* —which also applies to viewing illustrations, although with less significance.

*To be elaborated on in the upcoming subsection Paperbacks & Hardbacks vs. eBooks.

Hence in some cases, I extract my highlights of a digital book into a Word document, which I then transfer back to the computer for editing and printing into a booklet, thereby condensing the most useful information into a handy physical document. At a future time, I then read the booklet as I would a paperback book, marking the standout passages within it (by a coloured pencil line down the margin), thereby having a more direct (re)engagement with the compiled portions of the book I found to be most significant; which I can then refer back to in the future. This method, I find, furthers the utilization of digital books by enhancing the assimilation of the most valuable material within it.

The Body Electric – Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life
by Robert O. Becker & Gary Selden (1985)
(Scanned Book, Image PDF)

Paperbacks & Hardbacks vs. eBooks

To elaborate on the earlier point regarding the superiority of physical books, I begin by sharing the following anecdote explaining how I came to this realization.
               When I first took an interest in reading substantial literature, I had no intention of purchasing any physical books; and bought the iPad specifically to house and read the literature I collect on the computer—particularly since so many great books are freely obtainable in digital copy, which is also a saving of physical space. However, as I bought and read physical copies of the great books I could not find in digital, I began to notice the superiority of a printed book over a digital one, in that the digital form lacks those properties that engender a more memorable reading experience and more effective intellectual assimilation.
               A most notable and memorable example of this principle is on occasions such as the following: I have a thought about something that recalls to mind a detail or concept from a book I read years ago, which I then retrieve and flip through looking for the particular passage most associated with my recall. Often, such occasions first occur years after my initial reading of the particular book, which I have not returned to since; and in the process of seeking out the passage, I notice that the physical properties of the book – the look, the size, the feel, the smell (for those which have them); and most notably, the highlights I made – all engender a stronger recollection of the reading experience, including the particular thoughts I had within it.
               Having also gone through the same process with the digital books I have read made the realization of this difference that much more significant: for although searching a digital book for information is quicker and easier, the process of reading and re-reading a digital book is almost entirely lacking the multi-sensory elements of the traditional book-reading experience—which is why it does not engender a strong recollection of the material and experiential thoughts one had during his first reading of it.*

*Upon reflection, I also realized the logic of this principle. To illustrate: One who reads a succession of eBooks on the iPad has effectively remained in the presence of the same physical object the entire time, i.e. throughout every page of every book he has read; whereas one who reads a succession of paperback and hardcover books has been in the presence of, viewed, and handled the hundreds of unique pages in each unique book—each of which thereby infuses its distinctness into the reader’s reading experience of it: Thus, when the reader returns to those same pages of that same book, the revival of their distinct characteristics naturally engenders a stronger recall of the original experience—and hence, the physical book is a superior medium for assimilating information and thoughts.

Consequently, I began to purchase many of the top books of which I had already obtained free digital copies, weighing up the factors of cost against the nature and form of the content in each case. For example: In the case of a plain text book for which I have an eBook copy, I generally read and print out the highlights rather than purchase the book. However, for books which are of a more complex structure (Deep); or which are Voluminous; or which are well Illustrated—I generally buy the paperback or hardback when I find a low-priced copy available (which is often immediately).
               The following are examples of books I had acquired digital copies of, but nevertheless purchased in paperback for each one of the above reasons.

A Deep Book (Physical > Digital)

Propaganda – The Formation of Men’s Attitudes
by Jacques Ellul (1965)

A Voluminous Book (Physical > Digital)

The Complete Works of Plato
Volumes 1 & 2 (Benjamin Jowett Translation, 1871)

The Complete Works of Plato – and specifically, the classical translation by Benjamin Jowett – is a prime example of a voluminous text that I wanted to own in book form, for the reason that it contains an exceptionally broad range of eternally significant concepts, which it also conveys in a uniquely deep (and intellectually demanding) manner.

An Illustrated Book (Physical > Digital)

The Medium is the Massage
by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967)

Lastly on this point: I distinguish here between the preference of reading and buying physical books over digital ones based on the intellectual effectiveness of the reading experience, rather than the fetishization* of books – such as the pleasure of the look, the feel, the smell, the ownership, etc. – as this has never been a factor in my personal preference for them—which (as I explained earlier) actually arose from a background of happily reading digital texts rather than printed ones.

*Walter Benjamin’s essay Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting is such an example of the fetishization of “book collecting”, in which his discussion is explicitly oriented by the “relationship” with books based on sentiment, rather than utility. Not that I object to this—particularly considering the kinds of useless things that are collected and the degrading things that are fetishized; although I do think that the cultural fetishization of books engenders a superficially literate population. In any case, discussions such as Benjamin’s about books are ones that I cannot relate to at all—and they make necessary the relevant distinction between such motives and the purchasing and collecting of books based purely on their utility, i.e. without any aesthetic or sentimental motives.


A secondary consideration regarding digital book-reading is lighting: On the one hand, a backlit tablet device frees one from the necessity of reading under a light during evening or night hours; while conversely, reading the tablet during daytime creates the opposite problem of trying to shield the screen from reflected sunlight. Hence, I generally reserve daytime reading for physical books, which I read under natural light; and reserve digital book-reading for dark hours, i.e. predawn, evening, and night time, during which there is no natural light.

For the reasons indicated above, then, a collection of digital books serves well as a compliment to one’s physical library and traditional way of book-reading.

Methods for Assimilation

Highlighting* a Book

*Ironically, none of the various highlighting methods to be described involve actual highlighting, i.e. by use of a highlighting pen—but trust me: they’re much more practical!

The Purpose of Book-Highlighting

For me, the purpose of highlighting a book is based on a realization I had not long after I began to read books regularly: which is that to read a book is to become familiar with the information and ideas the author(s) has presented, i.e. as opposed to becoming in possession of them; and to stimulate one’s own thoughts during the processwhich too exist in the realm of familiarity rather than possession. In other words, having finished reading a book, my mind is far from fluent in the information, ideas, and stimulated thoughts I experienced during the reading process: in fact, I often find it difficult to recall more than a few particular points or thoughts I gained from it.
               Upon reflection, I recognized that this is because I generally have no need for an immediate recall or summarisation from my experience of a book; and my approach to reading reflects this. In other words, I have no need to immediately synthesise the information I found valuable in the book as, for example, someone writing a dissertation on it would; and generally, my priority is to read the book properly – i.e. to comprehend and, to an extent, interpret the meaning within it – and then move on to another book, usually one of a different subject or type. Hence with this approach, the information, ideas, and thoughts from it remain latent in my mind for a future occasion in which something has triggered a new significance concerning them.
               For my purposes, the ultimate value in reading a book is in re-reading it at some point in the future, in one way or another (in which I include the future reading of one’s notes taken from the book, rather than the book itself); and hence, I approach the initial reading experience with a mind to enhancing the future engagement with the material, i.e. by ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’.
                Thus, aside from a need to study a particular book to some end, my overarching purpose has been to broaden awareness rather than synthesise understanding. More recently, I have begun to experiment with ways to synthesise information, thoughts, and understandings—such as note-taking and blogging, which are to be discussed in the subsequent sections. However first, I will describe the principles and methods by which I have used highlighting as a quick but effective way of enhancing the reading experience and future re-use of a book.

The Demarcation of Valuable Passages

Usually when reading a book, my mind naturally distinguishes passages of text as either:             

  1. Significant, being key passages or standout sentences that I certainly want to re-read at some point in the future.
  2. Supportive, being passages surrounding or supplementing the significant ones.
  3. Excess, being passages I need not re-read, or that I will certainly want to skip next time.

Initially, my approach to making highlights during the first read through of a book was to mark only the standout passages (using the ‘Ruled Margin method’ to be explained below). However, I found that this approach was not very useful for a future re-read, in that it is generally necessary to read those passages within their supporting passages, which contextualises them—and thus without which the significance if not meaning of the sentence is missed.
                Hence, my next approach was to include any supportive passages with the significant ones in each highlight; however, I found it difficult to determine – during the first read through of a book – the extent to which surrounding passages will be necessary for contextualization during a future re-read. At this point, I determined that the best approach would be to simply highlight all potentially useful text so as to exclude the excess, thereby allowing me to easily skip whatever portion of the book I have deemed to be of no use or future interest to me.
                I also tried an approach to simultaneously mark the significant passages within the supportive ones, i.e. double markings—but I found that this distinction is too difficult to make during the first read, as the author’s subsequent exposition often affects the relative importance (and even interpretation) of the current and preceding text. In other words, the reader is somewhat ‘blind’ as to ‘where precisely the author is going’ with his exposition*, which is typically written to be considered in toto, i.e. with each part being dependant on the others for the overall context—and so I found that the process of double-marking counteracts the intellectual momentum conducive to an effective first reading of a book.
               Thus, I found that the most fitting approach to highlighting for my needs is to mark passages so as to exclude the excess, thereby setting up a more focused and efficient future re-read of the book’s most useful information.

*For this reason, I often don’t highlight the first 30 pages or so of a book, i.e. because I found that it is necessary to first become familiar with the author’s exposition – and in some respects, his method of exposition, e.g. frequent repetition or periodic summarizing – before I can determine the kinds of passages I want to mark and to leave out, thereby creating the most effective abridgement for a future re-read.

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
by Samuel P. Huntington (1996)

The Added Dimension of Thought

Having settled upon this method of highlighting, I also found that the process itself adds another dimension of intellectual engagement with the text, in that it often involves the added thinking process of distinguishing between supportive and excess passages, i.e. in that one must evaluate which supportive passages will be necessary for the (future) re-reading of the significant ones—and this often involves tracing back and reviewing preceding passages of text.
                As an example: It sometimes happens that after having read several pages without making a highlight, one standout sentence ‘ignites’ its surrounding passage into a blaze of significance—at which point I (necessarily) begin to trace back the author’s train of thought by reading the preceding passages in reverse sequence: often, it is the case that all of those pages that had seemed to be of little significance, have all proved to be significant in that they culminate in a standout point—and therefore, deserve if not require to be re-read in totality during a future re-read of the book.
                This incorporated activity of meta-reading, I have thus found, engenders a better recall of the reading experience of the text, including the thoughts one had about the particular highlights he considered and made: indeed, upon returning to a book I highlighted years ago, I find that even looking over unhighlighted passages evokes a recall of the thoughts I had during the formulation of that decision (i.e. the evaluation I made at that time).

Methods of Highlighting whilst Reading a Book

The following are simple methods I developed for marking passages whilst reading, each with their own convenience and suitability for different books, moods, and reading environments.

Ruled Margin method

The purpose of the Ruled Margin method (mentioned and illustrated previously) is to mark all the portions of a book that are desired to be re-read in the future, thereby allowing one to review the most significant contents at a much faster rate. This method consists of drawing a vertical line alongside the portion of text one identifies as being worth re-reading in a future review of the book; which thereby also indicates the passages (i.e. by their absence of marking) that can be skipped or skimmed. I always use a ruler, so that the lines are neat and straight; and a coloured pencil, to make the lines more distinguishable*.

*My preference is to use red; but since I found a box of coloured pencils that weren’t being used, I use them all in turn. However, in cases where the copy of the book has many pen or pencil markings from the previous owner, I select a pencil colour that contrasts with the colour of those markings.

The Prince of Darkness – Radical Evil and the Power of Good in History
by Jeffrey Burton Russell (1988)

Using the Ruled Margin method generally leads to more of the book’s passages being highlighted than not, provided that one selects books discerningly (i.e. books of substance): Indeed, there have been many books for which I ended up highlighting the vast majority of the text, deeming a relatively small portion of it as being excess.*
However, as the method is very quick to perform, it does not greatly protract the time it takes to read a book; and additionally, the process itself helps one to register the information comprehended—particularly since it adds a dimension of thought concerning the judgement of which passages to highlight or not, and where to begin and end a particular highlighted portion: one finds that upon revisiting the book, the memory of the thought-process-experience of particular passages – highlighted or not – will be that much more distinct, due to the judgement exercised in the highlighting process.

*An added factor in the valuation of passages is one’s state of knowledge at the time of reading a particular book. Hence, it is inevitable that – if one reads regularly and widely – supportive and possibly even significant passages that one marked years previously may become excess or redundant within one’s advanced state of knowledge and understanding.

The Ruled Margin method is the one I use when reading at a desk, which is where I do most of my reading, as it makes the highlighting process quick and comfortable.  However, there are two variations I developed for use in reading sessions which are not at a desk, therefore making it awkward to use a ruler*.

*Or on occasions in which I don’t mind the awkwardness—but I don’t have a ruler!

Quick-Marking method(s)

The following are two methods I use for marking passages quickly and easily without the use of a ruler.

The Quick-Marking A method is to place a bold dot in the margin beside the sentence in which the passage to highlight begins; and then to place a bold line beside the sentence which marks the end of the highlight (although any other kind of symbols can of course be used instead).

The Book of Chuang Tzu (circa 300BC)
 Translated by Martin Palmer & Elizabeth Breuilly (1996)

Thus, one can ensure that during a future re-read of the book, the essential portions can be immediately identified; and thus the expendable ones can be seamlessly skipped.
                Compared to the Ruled Margin method, the disadvantage of Quick-Marking A is that one cannot flick through the book to find a highlighted passage with the same ease, as the beginning and end markers often occur on pages far apart and thus the pages in between are totally unmarked.

Quick-Marking B is an even quicker method, entailing the mere placing of an ‘X’ at the top corner of a page, to indicate that either a part or the whole of that page is intended to be highlighted: This essentially makes for a less time consuming way to exclude the excess portion of the book, in that one need not think and keep track of precisely where to begin and end markers (which can actually be quite deliberating and thus time consuming—although as previously mentioned, the process itself is of intellectual benefit).
                The disadvantage of Quick-Marking B is that, whilst it is easy to identify highlighted pages by flicking through the book, there are no markings to indicate the excess passages within the highlighted pages. Therefore, the lesser accuracy of this method makes the re-reading of the book not quite as fast – in terms of navigation – and not quite as effective – in terms of remembrance – as the with the Ruled Margin method.

Page-Numbers Listing method

A highlighting method that serves a slightly different purpose is the Page-Numbers Listing method, which is to note the page numbers that contain key information; which I write on the reverse of the front or back cover, so that the record will be held inside the books itself: In the future, these pages can then be easily distinguished from the rest of the book, making for a much faster review of the most significant information.
                This method is very quick, in that one simply needs to flip to the back of the book to note the start of a highlight, e.g. p41; and then return to the entry should an end marker be needed, e.g. p41-4. An easy enhancement (for more accuracy) is to add the letter ‘a’ or ‘b’ to indicate if the start/end of a highlight occurs at the top or bottom half of page, e.g. 41b-44a. A more complex enhancement is to add a key word or phrase to make each entry identifiable, which is to effectively create a personalized index.

Both the Quick-Marking and Page-Numbers highlighting methods are beneficial when applied to books of substantial content; and are quick and easy to perform, which also makes them portable highlighting methods, meaning that they can be comfortably used when not sitting at a desk.

The Sensitives
by Herbert Burkholz (1987)

Piers the Ploughman
by William Langland (c. 1370–90, Translated by Frank Goodridge 1959, Revised Ed. 1966)

To summarise: Until recently, I have used only highlighting as a means to enhance the efficiency of my book-reading endeavours, as it is a method that is not too demanding and protracting: Thus, it serves to create a deeper and more useful experience of reading book, yet without spending more time on it than is necessary or desired.
               I should also mention that there are occasions – or even periods – during which I feel the need to take a break from the practise of highlighting and to just read the book(s) without any kind of marking: for these occasions, I usually select a book-type that is either Allegorical, Narrational, or Conversational; or, from the subjects of Fiction, Entertainments Study, or Personal Development.
                For about a year now I have been practicing and developing methods of note-taking, thereby devoting more time towards enhancing the assimilation of information and thoughts from my book-reading sessions, and in general. What follows are the principles I have discovered and the methods I have developed thus far.

Taking Notes of a Book

The Purpose of Note-Taking

Taking notes whilst reading a book serves to create a concentrated, personally-composed record of the most significant details and concepts. The value of this exercise – which demands both effort and time – is the acquired ability to review the most meaningful content with greater efficiency, i.e. without having to review the entire book itself. Once completed, the notes can be reviewed immediately afterwards, e.g. should one want to make a study out of the book; or at a future time, e.g. should the content have become of new relevance to one’s current interests.
                Additionally, the process of taking notes is beneficial in itself: both in the enhanced retention of information read from the book, as well as one’s thoughts about it; and in the intellectual exercise of formulating concise descriptions of the author’s passages, of one’s own thoughts, and of the adaptation of the former to the latter.

Multi-Level Notes

Furthermore, the accomplishment of note-taking provides an opportunity to build on its own process, by making – in one form or another – an even more concise record of the key concepts involved—in other words, to create a concentrated record of the concentrated record (or what I call 2nd Level Notes—which can itself be taken to the 3rd Level).
                To illustrate the point, the following delineates a three-level sequence of note-taking:

  1. Excerpts: With these notes, the aim is to capture all of the significant elements within the book, by recording, condensing, and recombining such elements as and when they are encountered.
  2. Encapsulations: By way of reading through one’s excerpts, the purifying aim is to now identify the core significance in terms of concepts, i.e. to formulate those concepts as the mind identifies them, thereby producing one’s own encapsulating terms and combined phrases.
  3. Overview: By way of reading through one’s encapsulations, the consummating aim is to now identify the overarching themes those concepts represent; to list them in a logical order; and thereby, to create an overview of significance – on a single page – that is easy to navigate with the eye.

The above sequence is one I spontaneously developed not long after I began experimenting with taking notes, finding that multi-level note-taking is a most worthwhile exercise in the case of books which are loaded with a broad range of significant concepts, in that one can read through his notes – which have captured those concepts – and refine them further in the form of concise and organized clarifications, thereby enhancing the assimilation of both the concepts and one’s thoughts on them, which are now also recorded for future reference.

Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow
by Yuval Noah Harari (2016)

As a prime example, Homo Deus is the book for which I developed this three-level notes system: The A5 pages are the excerpts I made during the reading of the book (1st Level Notes); the A4 yellow pages are the encapsulations made by reading the excerpts (2nd Level Notes); and the A4 plain page is the overview made by reviewing the encapsulations (3rd Level Notes).

Experimentation in Note-Taking

Taking notes is an exercise I began only quite recently: previously, my priority was to explore more subjects and broaden my awareness rather than to consolidate information, which has become useful to me presently. When I decided to begin, I simply tried to note-take intuitively and then assessed how useful the completed notes were to me. On the next occasion, I modified my approach to make the notes more effective; and on the following occasion, I modified them again to make the process swifter: This modification by assessment is an ongoing process for me, which I am finding to be a doubly beneficial exercise: for the assimilation of information; as well as for the formulation and articulation of thoughts.

Panoramic Note-Taking

As an example of experimentation in note-taking, I tried a different approach for the following book, which was to somewhat compromise between the excerpts and encapsulation modes whilst also forming them into a quasi-overview mode that I call Panoramic.

Weapons Grade – Revealing the Links Between Modern Warfare and Our High-Tech World

by David Hambling (2005)

As I hope to have shown, anyone can start to experiment with note-taking whilst book-reading; and thereby, to begin a process of gradual learning and development of methods that best suit his particular needs for assimilation.

Selective Application of Note-Taking

From my experience, taking notes whilst reading a book prolongs the reading time by anything from 35% to 100%, depending on the book, i.e. on how much notes-worthy information and concepts it contains; on how difficult the information is to comprehend; and on how much original thought it stimulates.
                Therefore, note-taking is not necessarily a practise to be done with every book one reads and it is better to be selective in this respect, i.e. by first examining a book to judge its notes-worthiness (to oneself). The form of the book can also be a factor in this consideration, as the Contents of some books are divided into many subcategories, which – along with a good Index – make the book much easier to review in the future, in that the concepts discussed are usually classified clearly and are easy to locate individually*.

*Thus, one may want to take an entirely different approach to note-taking for an Itemized book, e.g. by using the Panoramic Note-Taking method; or, by concentrating the main concepts into a one-page Overview (as shown previously for my 3rd Level Notes of Homo Deus)—in each case, noting the page-numbers for the all-important ability to refer back to the corresponding text in the book.

Personalization in Note-Taking

Ultimately, the choice of and methods for taking notes depends on the priorities, motives, and aptitude of the individual—and none of those three things are necessarily fixed, or even obvious in anyone’s case. Hence, personalization (via experimentation) is the key: one should just get started with the process in any form—and continuous development of personalized methods can follow from that foundation.

Personalized Shorthand

As an example of personal development in note-taking methods: I very much wanted to speed-up the laborious process of writing excerpted notes; and not wanting to learn an entire shorthand system from scratch, I began to devise shorthand versions of commonly used words, simply by taking a blank sheet of paper on which I periodically experiment with ways of shortening a particular word, so as to make it quicker to write whilst remaining easy to recognize within sentences.

Here is a sample of some of the shorthand versions I have devised for the words I most commonly usethe list of which is in constant refinement and expansion. The aim is to reduce the number of pen strokes to a minimum, whilst making the symbol easy to recognize without being overly conspicuous on the page.

Generally, then, the conduct of note-taking whilst reading a book requires a considerable investment of time and energy: not just during the process, but in the developments of the process itself towards one that is personally effective. Certainly, sustained efforts in this direction lead to a superior level of assimilation: both of the author’s concepts, and of thoughts they stimulated within the reader.

Blogging on a Book

As I mentioned in the previous section, I have recently begun to incorporate ways of consolidating information and synthesizing understanding into my reading and intellectual endeavours; and this motive was the precise inspiration for my website Stepping Stones, by which I have begun experimenting with forms and styles of articles to that end.
                For example: In my recent article series, Pandemics in Perspective, I applied both the 2nd and 3rd Level Notes methods to the blogging format. For the first article – which was on the book A Journal of the Plague Year – I typed up my quasi-shorthand excerpts while fully articulating them into coherent sentences (i.e. that would be coherent to a reader who has not read the book); arranged them into the six thematic categories I identified (thereby departing from the linear structure of the book); and devised playfully fitting headings for each distinct note. Then in a follow-up article, I created encapsulations of the notes, which I also arranged into three thematic categories.
                For the second article – on the book Plagues and Peoples – the chronological order of the book was appropriately maintained for the presentation of the excerpts, each of which I headed with its own summarising encapsulation. And, since the excerpts were extensive and the encapsulations were many, I also used them to create a list that serves both as an Outline of Concepts and a Contents Page for the excerpts.

The blogging format can thus serve as another method for assimilation in that one can reform and develop his book notes for others to read—the process of which serves to help develop and consolidate the related information and thoughts in his own mind. Hence, I highly recommend signing up to a free account on a blogging platform (such as WordPress), which makes it easy to simply get started—and from there, to gradually learn the format and develop one’s notes and thoughts in a way that is personally beneficial.

Referencing Other Books

A practise I use frequently is to refer to reference books whilst reading a book, so as to either clarify my understanding of a word or concept; to learn more information about a fact or event mentioned; or to view an illustration of something discussed in the book (most notably a map).
               For some books, I will first pick out any relevant reference books before I begin reading, placing them beside my desk for immediate use. I also keep a book stand handy, as it can be especially convenient to fix a reference page within sight of the main book, from which I can easily glance up at to refer to (this is particularly useful for illustrations, e.g. a map or diagram).
               I find the practise of referencing whilst reading to be an excellent assistance to the assimilation of information, in that one can quickly support or reinforce his comprehension of a particular concept or thing by enlisting the descriptions, explanations, and illustrations of other authors; and who are also specialists in the field of the concept or thing in question (i.e. for which the author of the main book may not necessarily have specialist knowledge). Thus, the frequent utilization of reference books facilitates a general improvement of comprehension and a higher degree of assimilation.*

*See Part II for my discussion of the Reference book; and Part I for my description of the Referential book-type, being books which are most suitable for being read with the support of multiple reference books.

The Reference Shelf

I use two of the shelves on the bookshelf beside my desk to house the reference books I use most frequently – what I will call my Reference Shelf* – thereby allowing me to access them without getting up from my chair.

*Please note that I don’t actually call it that: I just needed something to refer to it by! 😉
At the other end of my room are my main bookshelves of reference books, from which I often first select reference books that are relevant to the book I am about to begin reading, placing them on the other side of my desk: Thus, I arrange my reading sessions to make convenient use of a variety of reference books—and the convenience is important!

Separating Types of Books and Activities

Separation by Subject and/or Form

With regards to the consistent practice of book-reading, it is generally more effective – as I have found both instinctively and practically – to separate the reading of similar or related books by at least one book of different content and/or form. Thus, it is better to read a book of a different subject or type than the previous one in that it effectively gives the mind a rest from being occupied in a particular area, thereby allowing it to assimilate the information, i.e. by exercising it in a different area*. Moreover, I find that immediately reading a book of similar kind tends to blend one’s reading experiences of the two into each other, thereby clouding the distinct memory of each.

*This can be thought of as akin to routine gym exercise, in which a weekly workout program is arranged so as to separate the upper-body workouts from the lower-body ones; and the resistance training workouts from the cardiovascular ones: in both cases, one aspect of the body’s strength or fitness is allowed to rest (relatively) and rebuild whilst the other is being exercised.

To emphasise the point: There are often combinations or clusters of books that I want to read successively – generally because they are directly related to each other – and in a logically specific order. Even in these cases, I find that as soon as I have finished one, my mind strongly desires to read something unrelated before I continue the sequence—and the more different it is – either in form, subject matter, or both – the more suitable and refreshing I find it at that time*.

*An exception is multi-volume books, which in most cases I want to read in succession—but even so, I may feel the need to separate the volumes by reading a short novel (—particularly if the volumes are voluminous!)

The Focus Shelf

For an easy way to go about this separation, I have dedicated a bookshelf – what I will call my Focus Shelf – for housing the books I want to read during my current phase of interests, i.e. which changes periodically: due either to my continually developing understanding and expanding awareness, or to a change of circumstances in life—either of which can cause a shift in conceptual or thematic literary interests. Hence, every long while I survey my library of books while selecting the ones that are most presently of interest to me; which I then arrange on my Focus Shelf from which I can immediately survey the various subjects, themes, and book-types, thereby allowing me to easily alternate subjects and forms and even visually arrange a sequence to do so.

Since I have many books, I find it useful to organize some of the ones I may want to read in the near future into one place, thereby making it easier to select and read books in an optimal order. Thus, on these two shelves can be seen a variety of book-types and subjects that I have in mind to read in the near future*.

*Note that these shelves are directly above my Reference Shelf †, i.e. beside my desk—meaning that I don’t necessarily need to get up from my desk to select a book to read next, which is convenient.
†See: I’ve already referred to it!

Separation from Computer Use

I have found from experience that regular computer use erodes one’s ability to concentrate*—an ability which is particularly important – i.e. essential – for the type of concentration required for reading a book of substance. For example: If after having a session of internet browsing on the computer I then immediately sit down to have a session of book-reading, I find that my mind is still in the mode engendered by the hyper-stimulation of computer use, i.e. that of seeing (continual movement), clicking, scrolling, typing, hearing (integrated sounds), etc.—not to mention the active switching between these stimulants (known as ‘multi-tasking’).

*This also includes the use of computerized devices, such as video games, tablets, and smartphones—although I think that the desktop/laptop computer is the most effective hyper-stimulating device, due to its form and inherent purpose, i.e. fixated usage from a stationary position.

In fact, I was a heavy computer user for many years before I began to read books seriously and regularly—and it was this beginning that caused me to realize the hyper-stimulating effect of computer devices: for I found it a struggle to settle my mind into a steady stream of focus, i.e. to sit and read a book effectively, even for a short session; and also perceived that it was in a state of expectation for the multi-tasking and multi-media activities inherent to computer use. In other words, these computerized devices involve activities based on continuous stimulation*, the mental effect of which persists long after the user has finished his session.
                This effect (hyper-stimulation) significantly impairs the quiet, composed concentration required to read a book of substance: for the mind will still be receptive to – i.e. expectant of, if not craving for – the constant stimulation involved in computer use†.

*It is also worth remembering that computer and tablet displays operate by a ‘refresh rate’, being a continuous motion that is so rapid that it is not consciously perceived (i.e. ‘flicker-free’). Nevertheless, these displays involve continuous movement which probably contributes to the hyper-stimulation effect of using such devices regularly.
†I liken this effect to the one most will be familiar with from their childhood: After one has spun around in a circle several times and stopped at a sudden standstill, he finds that his head is yet still ‘spinning’…

For this reason, I decided to separate my book-reading sessions from my computer-using sessions as much as possible, finding that the detrimental effect is reduced to the extent that the two activities are separated in time*†. For example, I find that a good time to have a reading session is first thing in the morning before I have used the computer or smartphone at all; and during the rest of the day, I allocate a period of time for at least one one-hour book-reading session, which I generally try to place before any computer session I might need, or at least following a break from the computer session.

*Although heavy computer use on a daily basis will take its toll on book-reading effectiveness, over-and-above the separation of those two activities.

The Shallows – How the Internet is Changing the Way We Read, Think and Remember
by Nicholas Carr (2010)

The principle of separation can thus be a considerable factor in one’s book-reading efficiency, as it has been in my own. However, the principle of separating computer use – and ideally, limiting if not minimizing it – is by far the more significant one: in fact, it would probably be the most effective method of those presented here—not only for enhancing one’s reading efficiency, but one’s mental efficiency in general.

Relaxed Mode of Reading

The Relaxed Mode of reading is when no note-taking is desired and no reference books are required; and thus, it is a type of reading which does not demand a very high level of concentration. This means that such books are suitable for reading in an armchair, being a type of chair which inclines (usually by way of recline) one to relax his concentration (relative to sitting on an office chair at a desk). The same applies to public and travel reading, being environments that are not best suited for high level concentration.
               The genre of Fiction is ideal for reading in the Relaxed Mode, being a form of literature designed for enjoyment as opposed to edification. Generally, it is also well suited for Anthological books, being collections of short writings in any form, such as poetry, stories, essays, plays; as well as specialized Reference books (e.g. a book of quotations). Conversational books are also suitable, although to a lesser extent in that they should ideally be read at a desk (i.e. in a more studious mode); and thus they can serve as a useful means to make an occasional change from reading fiction and anthologies for a relaxed form of intellectual engagement.
                Additionally, I find that the form of a tablet device is also well-suited for the Relaxed Mode of reading, for the reason that all sorts of literature can be stored on it for easy selection, reading, and highlighting; as well as the ability to reference anything from within its own applications. The tablet also dispenses with the need to orient oneself underneath a light source: hence, I typically read my digital literature – mostly articles and books – from my armchair during the early morning hours (usually while it’s still dark), which complements the more studious approach and posture of book-reading sessions at my desk.

Mood-Matching Selection of Books

Selecting the most appropriate book to read at any particular time is to effectively identify the type of book best suited for one’s present mood and concentration level—specifically because (as I have found) different books are demanding of different moods and concentration levels.

Book-Selection method

To help determine whether or not a particular book is suitable to read currently, one can use the following method:

  1. Read the synopsis (usually featured on the back cover of paperbacks and flaps of the dust jacket for hardbacks).
  2. Examine the Contents page(s); then scan the Index.
  3. Read particular or random passages, in order to get a sense of one’s present receptivity of the subject matter; and to estimate what kind of reading experience the book demands: in terms of concentration level (complexity), endurance (comprehensiveness), and even emotional affectivity (subject matter).

If after having conducted this process the book feels suitable in every respect, one can begin reading it to usually find that the experience is satisfactory if not fulfilling to his needs. If the book does not feel entirely suitable on examination, one can then examine a different book… and so on until a good match is found: This process can avert the undesirable habit of abandoning a book after having recently begun it; or even worse, after having read a considerable portion of it.
               In particular, Harrowing and Dissonant books are best read when mentally prepared for in advance, i.e. by putting one’s mind on alert for the conditions most suitable to the endurance of what may be an unpleasant (but valuable) reading experience. Due to their mentally taxing nature, Technical and Referential books are best read with relatively less frequency (unless there is a desire or need to read such books often); and immediately following a period of medium-to-low taxing books being read (as per the Separation principle mentioned earlier).

For one who has a large collection of books, the frequent use of this book-selection process develops in him a better sense of when would be a good time to read a particular book, which is in my experience certainly an important factor for assimilation—not to mention for the sense of fulfilment and enjoyment.

Conclusion to the Typology of Book-Reading

In Part I of this article series, I classified book-types by their required mode of concentration; in Part II, I classified twelve different subjects by their ideal mood for comprehension; and in Part III, I have shared various principles and methods for assimilation—this article series itself being a demonstration of one of those methods: Simply put, I hope the personal experience I have transcribed into this topic is useful to anyone with a deep interest in reading books of substance, in that they have taken ideas from it and stimulated their own thoughts by it.

Author: Simon Kanzen

I value reading substantial literature, enjoy thought-provoking entertainment, and above all, I think every day. With Stepping Stones, I develop my thoughts in writing and share references to relevant media, intending for other readers and thinkers to find these writings useful.

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