How to Take Book Notes in Obsidian

A picture of a stack of books.

Taking notes is like eating: everyone does it, but not everyone does it well.

For many years, taking notes was like eating fast food for me. I only took notes when I needed to, and it never helped me. If I was afraid of my forgetfulness, I would make a note.

But this didn’t cure my forgetfulness, and because I didn’t have a good system for keeping track of my notes, taking a note was almost worse than the alternative.

When I picked up Obsidian I quickly realized I needed to relearn how to learn. Fast-food notes were no longer good enough. I needed to learn how to create a trusted system where I could find notes when I needed them, even if I had thousands of notes.

Future proofing my notes

It started with learning how to future-proof notes using a system called Zettelkasten. Then I moved on to learning about Maps of Content, and structuring notes with an eye towards discoverability.

Zettelkasten and MOCs have one big thing in common: they’re all about creating notes that are loosely connected. You create atomic notes that stand on their own two feet, that aren’t glued to any other single resource.

The next step in my learning revolution was obvious to me: I needed to learn how to capture information from books. Books are one of my favorite ways to learn (regardless of format, I like audio, digital, and physical books), but I’ve never had a good system for capturing what I learn from books. As a result, I lose a lot of knowledge that I’d rather remember.

I’ve tried taking notes on paper in the past, but it never stuck. Paper notes are easily lost and forgotten, they often require context to understand, and there’s no point in taking notes if you have to reread the book in order to understand the note. Notes that are glued together are no good.

So I made it my mission to figure out how to take book notes in Obsidian.

Keeping a list of books

My first step was a simple one: I started to keep a simple list of books I had read that year. I titled it “Books read in 2019”, and I added the title of each book I read after I read it.

This serves two purposes: it motivates me to keep reading, and it gives me a reference in case I want to look up a book I recently read. The only structure I gave it was month headings, other than that I kept it simple:

## April
The Body, Bill Bryson
The Emperor's Sword, Andrew Klavan
Getting Things Done, David Allen

It didn’t take me long to realize that I could do more than this. Titles were helpful, but what if I want some final thoughts and maybe a few quotes from the book?

It started with Shakespeare, I was reading As You Like It and decided I wanted to keep track of some quotes. So I added a link and created a new note for As You Like It:

## June
Bleak House, Dickens
[[As You Like It]], Shakespeare

If you’re new to Obsidian, you can add wiki-style links to any text in a note [[like this]] and click it, and Obsidian will automatically create a new note with that name.

My first book note was a simple review of the book along with some quotes:

# _As You Like It_, Shakespeare

Odd little story about a princess who is banished from her home. It is essentially a comic melodrama, where everything works out in the end and everyone gets married. Rosalynd, the protagonist, is banished from her home, so she flees to a nearby forest, along with her friend and trustee Celia. In order to stay safe, Rosalynd dresses up as a man, and continues to pretend to be a man even once in the forest. In the forest, she uses her wit and cunning to orchestrate a number of events for the benefit of herself and others. She even tricks the man she loves into calling her by her proper name, rather than her alias, and yet the poor fool has no clue that it is actually her.

## Quotes

> The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

> All the world’s a stage,
> And all the men and women merely players;
> They all have their exits and their entrances;
> And one man in his time plays many parts,
> His acts being seven ages.

> Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.

This was helpful, and I enjoy looking back on this early example of what it could look like to take book notes in Obsidian.

But it’s very similar to how I would write a note on paper, and it doesn’t take full advantage of Obsidian’s linked nature. Plus it leaves all of the ideas from this book trapped inside this one note, which makes it difficult to grow the ideas over time.

I knew that book notes in Obsidian could be more. For fictional books this works fine, but I soon discovered that I needed a better solution. The real trial-by-fire began when I tried taking notes on a non-fiction book.

Taking notes on non-fiction books

At first I used the same technique for non-fiction books: I wrote ideas and quotes in a single “book note”, and I hoped that would be adequate.

Trying to shove dozens of ideas into a single note is like trying to eat dozens of rich meals at once: even if you manage to do it, you’ll be regretting it for days to come.

The first book I attempted was Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order— Sensing that this technique was inadequate, I created a header for each chapter, and took notes on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

I did have links in mind as I was doing this, because I did at least separate the quotes out into their own “quote note”, and I used block links to quote them. Here’s what that note ended up looking like:

## Chapter 4
*Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated*

![[Jordan Peterson#^8]]

This chapter reminds me very much of C. S. Lewis:

![[C. S. Lewis#^good]]

Fighting with yourself every day is hard. Pursuing the good at all costs is hard. Avoiding distraction is hard. But that is the way to salvation, that is the way to a good life, and there’s no point putting it off until you’re old. Fix yourself now, and with any luck you can bring a bunch of other people along for the ride.

## Chapter 5
*Do not do what you hate*

Always better to follow your conscience, and live with the consequences. The consequences of following your conscience will always be better than the consequences of betraying yourself. 

This was a good chapter, but not super relevant to me right now, hence no notes.

This is just a snippet, the full note has over 2,000 words in it. And I’ll be honest: I’ve never used any of this information, and I’ve never read the full note. It’s too dense, too cluttered, too much work to figure out the long-lost context. In order to decipher most of these ideas, I’d have to go back and re-read the book.

The worst type of note is a note that requires context to understand, in many ways it might be better to take no notes than to take this type of note.

So back to my original point: notes that are permanently glued together are no good. Somehow we need to disconnect the idea from the book, while still ensuring we can find the original source if we need to.

Enter: atomic notes.

Don’t Repeat Yourself

In programming there’s a term called “DRY”, which stands for “Don’t Repeat Yourself”. DRY code refers to code that is reusable to a point where it never needs to be written again. Code can become too DRY, but most programmers tend in the other direction, repeating themselves often rather than refactoring.

Notes in Obsidian have the same problem. If you’re not careful, you may end up repeating yourself again and again, which makes it very hard to find and use your ideas. This is especially true of big notes, if you capture a thousand ideas in the same note (such as the Beyond Order note above), then it’s very hard to recycle or reuse those notes. That note becomes a single purpose note, only helpful if you want to see what you thought of that book.

Single purpose notes are useful for a single thing.

Atomic notes are useful for thousands of things. If you write a high-quality atomic note, then often times you won’t even know how you’ll use it in the future.

But because the information is understandable and findable, if you do need that information in the future, it’s extremely easy to find.

Atomic notes

Atomic notes are the best solution I’ve found for taking book notes. Even better, using atomic notes is still a simple solution, but a much more effective one.

Taking book notes is now a three-step process for me:

  1. When I start a new book, I create a “book note” for this book. The book note includes the title, the author, and any relevant metadata.
  2. As I read the book, I create new notes for any idea that interests me. I title that note with the “big idea” for the note, and add details inside the note. I write everything in my own words.
  3. I then add a link to the book note as a reference, showing where the idea came from.
  4. (optional) once I finish the book, I often add a review of my overall impressions of the book to the book note.

It may seem like a small change, but this mindset shift is everything.

Every new idea gets a new note. This allows the idea to stand on its own two feet, rather than gluing the idea to the source of the idea.

Additionally, if you’re doing this in Obsidian, you can use the backlinks plugin inside of your book note in order to see all the atomic notes you created for a certain book. So you still look up “all the ideas I got from this book”, but those ideas are no longer trapped within a single behemoth of a note.

What my book notes look like now

I gave you an example of a bad book note: time for me to showcase a good book note.

I recently read Tiago Forte’s Building a Second Brain (and wrote a small review). I used the above process to take notes. Checking my backlinks, I created no fewer than sixteen atomic notes for this 248 page book.

A screenshot of the backlinks in the note I took for Building a Second Brain. There are sixteen backlinks, with various titles.

It’s nice to be able to see the ideas that I pulled from this book. But because those ideas weren’t glued to the book itself, they have continued to evolve over the last year.

Here’s an example of a note I created called the “Cathedral Effect”:

parent:: [[Mental Models]]

Our environments effect our behavior. Tall ceilings tend to make us think more abstractly, and short ceilings make you think more concretely. [^1][^2] This called the Cathedral Effect.

This is one reason why I don’t care for [[Brutalist Architecture]]. Architecture, like art in general, should elevate us and bring us closer to God. Ugly, sterile, concrete architecture is brutally practical, and brings us down to the level of hogs.

This seems related to the [[Broken Window Theory]].

## References
[^1]: [[Building a Second Brain]] p85

The first sentence is similar to what Forte said in his book, but I’ve added another reference and a couple more sentences over time.

If I hadn’t created this note, I’m certain I would have forgotten about the cathedral effect by now. But the simple act of writing down an atomic note lodged the idea in my brain, and I’ve returned to it several times to develop the idea, even going so far as to connect it to another related idea (Broken Window Theory, which in some ways is the opposite of the Cathedral Effect).

In Conclusion

When taking notes, focus on making high quality notes that don’t bite off more than they can chew.

Taking book notes in Obsidian is great because of the links: we can take hundreds of notes from a single book if we want, and we can still find them thanks to the power of links.

I took notes for every book I read last year (all 60 of them) using the simple system above, and they have become a tremendous asset within my vault.

Taking these notes has improved my memory, and given me better focus while I read. It’s helped me think through difficult ideas, and catalog not only my conclusions, but the entire thought process that has led me there.

I have benefited immensely from this very simple system. If you haven’t tried something similar, then I’d encourage you to give it a shot.

It might just change your life.

4 responses to “How to Take Book Notes in Obsidian”

  1. hi Tim, thanks for the great blog – just started using obsidian and am living it’s potential.
    two follow up questions on this post if I may?
    1. if you are reading a physical book, what is your actual process for taking notes? as you are reading, when you’ve finished a chapter, end of book? and how do you take the note? app on phone, paper (then copy up), voice transcript?
    I find this question the most tricky to answer.

    you take hundreds of atomic notes. how many of these do you actually look at again? how do you remember to build on a thought/note in the future rather than creating a new one?

    thank you 🙂

    1. Hi Andrew! Thanks for the kind words.

      When taking book notes, it depends a lot on the book. With non-fiction, I will often stop in the middle of a page to capture an idea. I find it most convenient to do this with my phone: I capture the idea in crude form in my own words, and then I revisit and refine it later at my computer. With fiction I often wait until after I finish a chapter, or even the whole book, and write about only what I remember. This works as a filter, helping me to capture only ideas that were memorable to me, rather than anything interesting, which often ends up creating a lot of useless notes.

      As for revisiting notes: I revisit notes constantly. It amazes me how often I come across an idea, and go to create a note, only to find that it already exists. My brain gravitates towards a lot of similar patterns, it seems, so I often will end up with 4-8 references in each note, because I revisit it so often. It is one of the most delightful things about note-taking: the gradual and effortless increase of knowledge over time.

      For some more ideas on how I handle note discovery, check out this article:

  2. Hey there, I loved reading this content.
    I’ve thoroughly took notes on your ideas from this article.
    And I’m looking forward to slowly (but surely) implementing them in my Obsidian Vault(s).
    Thanks for all the good work you’re putting out there, much appreciated.

    1. Thanks Dan! Glad this article was helpful 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *