Thursday, September 15, 2011

Taking Notes and Novel Reading

"I think someone said something about that somewhere in this book. No, I don't remember who, or when, or what page it's on. But I'm sure it's in there. Trust me, Prof."

Ever since I started college, and now, as I'm halfway through grad school, I have hated conversations like the one above. I have a somewhat obsessive attachment to my memory (from my high school Bible Quizzing days, but that's another story), and besides that, those kinds of conversations just don't make me sound like the budding brilliant intellectual I need my professors to know I am. That's not all grad school is about, of course, but it is part of it.

If you can't back up a statement with evidence, you might as well not even make it.

In order to save face and sound smart, I've developed a system for taking notes while I'm reading a novel that works pretty well for me.

A screenshot of my notes
from Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist.

While I'm reading a book, I have my computer open in front of me, and whenever I come across something I want to note (introduction of characters, important place names, themes, recurring images, etc.), I write a short entry like the ones you see in a screenshot. At the beginning of each line, I write the page number and a brief note about whatever I want to remember. I separate different notes from the same page with semicolons, because I like semicolons.

I don't write as many notes as I did when I started using this system, and I've gotten better at making them as short as possible the more I've done it. I started learning what kinds of triggers I needed to jog my memory, and then writing down only those keywords in my notes. The longer the notes you write, and the more of them you take down, the longer it takes to get through a book, and the higher your chances of not finishing the book on time and of going insane.

I use the Mac Pages program (instead of MS Word) because of its search function (Pages > Edit > Find > Show Search) that allows me to type in a word and see a list of every entry in the document where that word shows up (shown in the screenshot above). Clicking on an individual result takes you to that exact spot in the document. It's quite useful for finding/remembering patterns and motifs. I haven't found an equivalent function in Word. If I'm missing it, someone let me know, please.

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