No one wants to dig the same hole twice. Yes, we sometimes read as an alternative to Netflix or Sportscenter, for a combination of escape and entertainment, but other books (eg. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contment), occasions (eg. a report or book club), or roles (eg. writer or preacher) inspire–or require–archeological reading. After all that sifting, sorting and storing, why cast the jewels back into the pit, knowing that forgetfulness will soon refill the hole?
Excited readers should learn to highlight, annotate, and glean from their books to read more effectively. Bored students should acquire the same skills to read more efficiently. Preachers, professors, writers, and the like should practice these academic disciplines to capture quotes more habitually, minimize rereading, and synthesize their sources.
In the past couple years, I’ve discovered several priceless tools for capturing ideas from books (hereafter: Reading Hacks). They’re largely missing in the classroom because they were unavailable when today’s professors were forming their own study habits, but these tools are to me like the advent of cars; they allow me to either go further or the same distance faster.
At this point, I employ either 1, 3, and 4 or 2, 3, and 4 (below) with almost every book I read, whether I want to set aside 50 passages for a report or one perfect piece of dialogue from a novel.
1. Reading Hack #1: Kindle Highlights
I first started reading books on Kindle because A) I could covertly read Chesterton in the back of my Microeconomics class with the Kindle for Mac app, and B) most of the best books on Kindle are free. My Kindling was ratcheted up when Annie’s parents got me an iPad for graduation, and a Kindle Fire last year for Christmas. However, I continued to ride the fence, equally drawn by the feel of paper books and the convenience of ebooks, until I learned that Kindle books are also more functional.
One feature sets Kindle apart: highlights. At first, this seemed like a novelty, an attempt to imitate some readers’ habits. I rarely highlighted my books, anyway–when was I going to pull a book off the shelf and thumb through it all over again? That’s what Google is for. That all changed when I discovered kindle.amazon.com. When you visit this unheralded site and login with your Amazon id, every one of your highlights and notes is laid out before you, even if you’ve been reading the book on your phone, tablet, reader, and laptop. You can copy and paste. You can go directly to the page in your book and read it in context (when paired with the Kindle for Mac or Kindle for PC app). You can even combine this page with Reading Hack #3 to create a searchable database of everything you’ve ever highlighted.
Highlighting a passage is a matter of seconds, but that small investment every so often means all your passages, with locations, are now there for you when you need them. I’m encouraging you to create your own personal database here; think of highlighting as making deposits in your scholastic IRA.
For college students, its hard to buy books that you can’t loan out or sell back, but think of it this way: You’re paying thousands of dollars for the class. If buying a better book for a few extra dollars helps you learn more in less time, it will quickly pay for itself. This is particularly true if your grades are good enough that an incremental increase may mean scholarships or bad enough that an incremental decrease may mean paying for it all over again.
Tips for using Kindle highlights:
- Amazon hasn’t created an easy way to highlight passages across pages. The best work around is to increase and decrease the font size until you have your whole passage on one page, that you can highlight (eg. increase the font to push the start of your passage to the next page, then swipe to the next page and decrease the size of the font until the whole passage is on that page).
- I try to highlight longer passages that include the context, so that I can understand it when its listed on its own in “Your Highlights.”
- It’s rarely worth writing yourself a note to say, “I really like this!” (clearly, you highlighted it), but the “note” function is useful when you highlight a quote. Just select the passage, select “note,” write “Augustine, Confessions” or whatever bibliographic material you want to include. Kindle will automatically highlight the passage you have selected.
- The kindle.amazon.com interface is a bit cumbersome. The best way to see your highlights of a recent book is to select “My Highlights” from the options at the top and scroll down until you see the book you’re interested in. For a book you haven’t opened in a while, go to “Your Books,” click the title of the book, then click the “View Your Notes & Highlights” button across from “Shared Notes & Highlights.” Note: It will only show 10 highlights at a time, so you’ll need to keep scrolling down and clicking “load more notes and highlights” until that option is replaced with, “no more notes and highlights.”
2. Reading Hack #2: Cut Sticky Notes
Sometimes a book is unavailable on Kindle, so cheap on Half.com that you can’t justify an ebook, or so great that you have to feel it in your hands and display it on your bookshelf. Never fear. Cutting sticky notes may not seem like much of a hack, but it’s allowed me to start incorporating print books into my illustration files and writing system.
Reading 1.0 was reading. Reading 2.0 was reading, and stopping to type up essential quotes mid-book to streamline my paper writing process at the end. Reading 3.0 is reading, flagging particular passages with a cut sticky note, and going back to type them up after I’ve finished the book. Eight reasons I would encourage you to do the same:
i. Compared to 1.0, you’ll be able to use these gems for the rest of your life (if you pair this with Reading Hack #3).
ii. Compared to 1.0, paper writing will be far smoother.
iii. Compared to 1.0, you’re forced to pay attention to what you’re reading, but not to store it all in your brain.
iv. Compared to 2.0, your reading doesn’t get sidetracked whenever it starts getting good.
v. Compared to 2.0, you don’t spend all the time typing initially important passages until you finish and understand how important it actually is.
vi. Compared to 2.0, you’ll finish the book (and walk into the next class) with a better sense of the whole book, not just the last couple chapters.
vii. Compared to underlining and highlighting, it’s easy to find all you passages, even with the book closed.
viii. Compared to underlining and highlighting, you haven’t devalued your book for resale.
You may balk at the idea of going back through a book, just after finishing it. Yet, like the last part of Creme Brûlée, this final–and relatively short–step will likely make the whole book worthwhile. You’ve already spent hours reading the book, take 5, 10, or 30 minutes to go back through the book and capture what you’ve found.
Furthermore, if you’re preparing to write a paper, you’re going to have to type up all these passages anyway. Doing it as you read would make the reading take longer; doing it as you write would make the writing take longer. Read, then glean, then write, and you’ll end up with a better paper in less time.
You can make flag-sized sticky notes by pulling up the top several notes on a standard sticky note pad, making a few layers of mostly-cut quarter sheets with three snips, and tearing them as you go. Or you can buy little Post-it flags for $3.27.
Tips for using cut sticky notes:
- Use Reading Hack #3. Type those puppies straight into Evernote. You’ll be glad you did.
- Stick profusely.
- Don’t type profusely. Once you’ve finished the book, don’t feel obligated to type something out just because you flagged it. If it ends up being a minor point, just say something like, “Shows how peace-making requires meekness (p.134).” If it ends up being unimportant, ignore it.
- If you wife gets annoyed with the sound of tiny post-it notes ripping in the night, buy the pre-cut Post Its.
3. Reading Hack #3: Evernote
Evernote makes hacks 1 and 2 worthwhile. There’s really no reason to have a shelf full of books with sticky notes coming out the side or a bunch of highlights on Amazon’s poorly designed server. Import those passages into Evernote and all of a sudden you have a permanent, searchable record of everything you’ve ever highlighted. If you’ve used Kindle highlights or typed up your sticky-noted passages, this is only going to take another 5 minutes, which is like highway robbery considering how useful your Evernote notes will become.
Evernote is a free, cloud-based platform, best-suited to text and a few pictures. For those raised (or trained) on Windows/Office or OSX/iWork, think of it as a separate (smaller, handier) universe from your files and word processors. It’s its own, basic filing system and word processor in one. It’s not good for storing movies, creating pretty posters, or listening to music. It’s good for storing text (with a few pictures attached to that text). You’re going to create a big, searchable database of things you’ve read, heard, or seen, so when you search “compassion,” you’ll find:
- Your notes from a class 2 years ago, specifically the part where your professor gave a definition of compassion.
- An article on social justice you skimmed last fall. You sent the whole thing to your database using Evernote webclipper.
- A picture you took on a mission trip. You uploaded it straight from your phone into Evernote, and typed a few key words alongside it.
- An anecdote from last month, when your friend sat with you in the middle of a difficult season. You saved it, wanting to praise her example when appropriate in the future.
- Your highlighted passages from Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life by Robert Lupton.
- A relevant passage from Satisy Your Soul by Bruce Demarest.
Since Evernote creates a separate, small, cloud-based universe meant specifically for text and a few pictures, it’s A) easy to input your data and B) easy to search your data. It’s really good at one thing: Hosting your own private database.
How to import Kindle books:
1b) In Evernote, create a notebook (think of it as a “folder” in an operating system) called “Books.”
–switching to Kindle–
2a) Once you’ve finished a book on Kindle, highlighting throughout, get on your computer and visit kindle.amazon.com.
2c) Simply highlight a whole book’s worth, from the title to the end of the last highlighted passage, and press ctrl+c.
–switching to Evernote–
3a) In Evernote, create a new note in Books.
3b) Paste all the the information in.
3c) Give it a title (I use the format: “Manalive – G.K. Chesteron).
3d) Now, here’s the key: Take a few minutes to go through the quotes and add keywords. Given Evernote’s search function, the formal tagging system is a waste of time. If you’d like this passage to pop up when you search for “fear,” but it doesn’t include the word fear, just type “fear” above or below it.
1a) Create a new note in Evernote.
1b) Give it a title.
1c) Type away. You can do it.
1d) Now, here’s the key: Take a few minutes to go through the quotes and add keywords. Given Evernote’s search function, the formal tagging system is a waste of time. If you’d like this passage to pop up when you search for “fear,” but it doesn’t include the word fear, just type “fear” above or below it.
Tips for Evernote:
- Use keywords that you’ll actually search for.
- Learn how to use webclipper.
- Commit. It seems like a lot of time at first, but two years from now (or if you ever start blogging), you will be so glad you got started when you did.
- Include a good citation in each book note so that you can insert it into a paper without every having to find the actual book.
4. Reading Hack #4: Pre-Footnoted Outlines
My final reading tool is actually more of a writing tool. I often enjoy writing, but regularly lose momentum because of cumbersome citation. Of course, good footnotes and a good bibliography are ethical essentials and help your more curious readers, so we wouldn’t want to do a poor job either. That’s why, with reading 3.0, I cite before I write. If you’ve used any of the tips above you’re within inches of writing better and faster. Here’s my outlining system that I invite you to share:
A. Come up with 2-4 points, with “Introduction” and “Conclusion” before and after (oftentimes provided by the professor).
B. Under each point, add 2-4 sub points.
C. Go through all the passages you’ve gleaned and put them in below specific sub-points. This is when you footnote! You can use the “footnote” button in word, or use the Kindle shortcut below.
D. Once your outline is filled with your pre-footnoted quotes, open up a blank document.
E. Write the body of your paper. Whenever you get to a quote, copy and paste the entire quote, with superscripted footnote number, from your notes document to your paper document (or paraphrase the quote in your paper document and then copy just the superscripted footnote number from your notes document). The footnote itself will come with it, renumbering itself in the new document.
F. Write your introduction and conclusion.
G. Make sure to double check your footnotes for appropriate uses of Ibid, etc.
Tips for Pre-Footnoted Outlines:
- When you copy directly out of Kindle for Mac (and presumably Kindle for PC), it will automatically add a footnote. Sadly, kindle.amazon.com does not do this, but it does let you “Read more at location 549,” opening the app and sending you to that page. Do this at least once to get all the bibliographic information. Past that, you can add “Ibid, [page/loc number].”
- Some Kindle books have real page numbers (tied to a print edition), some do not. I’ve never run into problems using Kindle location numbers in my citations. However, if you know the book has real page numbers and you need them, they won’t be displayed at kindle.amazon.com. Go to the location in the ebook using the aforementioned links.
None of these tips are revolutionary on their own, nor am I the world’s foremost student, but the combination of all four has certainly made me a better one. I hope these tools are useful for students, educators, writers, and readers alike. Let me know if anything is unclear or particularly helpful. Happy reading.