Don’t be afraid to write in your books

Taking notes in your physical reading books is not going to break the world

Make annotating physical books the new norm.

We’ve all been there. You buy a new book and treasure it, take care of it and place it somewhere special for convenient access. I get it. It feels good, and this book is definitely going to make you wiser and smarter. And what about the smell? Don’t get me started on that one!

There is something special about physical books that have a place in my heart. Admiringly, I own more eBooks than physical books. In my quest for a minimalist home, I decluttered, donated and reduced my physical book collection to a dozen books. For context, I own eighty-four Kindle books, eighteen Apple Books, and three audiobooks.

What I am about to say make shock some of you, but here goes. Don’t be afraid to write in your physical books.

I’ve had time to reflect on my note-taking and note-making recently. What I have learnt is the notes captured through annotating and commenting in physical books have had a bigger impact on my life than those I captured on any of my eBooks. You might prefer linking your thinking through eBooks and exporting to your favourite app.

Take physical notes

I read a blog post on The Wordy Habit about annotating in physical reading books, and it shocked me at first. I’m a bit of a perfectionist at times, so I like to keep things neat and ‘perfect’ as possible. But then I gave it a go.

My physical notes on How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.
My physical notes on How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

What a revelation this moment was! I had book called How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens because I was keen to learn about Zettelkasten and how to improve my note-taking. The book had me thinking deeply about what I was capturing, and more importantly, why I was capturing what I was.

Foremost, I wasn’t ready to write in pen, so I those to use a pencil and some Post-It notes. What if I make a mistake? The inner perfectionist was sweating franticly.

Then I noticed something while I was digesting what I was reading. I was calmer, focused and underlining content that was resonating with me. I wasn’t breaking the flow with my usual Kindle routine of highlighting the text, choosing a colour and adding some notes to the text.

Furthermore, I had built my own annotating system to help with the process

Underline — highlight the key message.

Star — Important quote or thought.

Numbers — Takeaways from the page.

Post-Its — Capture larger chunks of information or my thoughts.

The system is simple enough to follow, and it avoids any overcomplexity that would discourage me from being consistent with the process. I also wanted to ensure I could remember what each system item did. I also add a few highlighter graphics/text for significant parts of a book (not many, though).

Another element to the system has been built for quick referencing — a bookmarking system for future access.

My bookmarking system helps with quick access.
My bookmarking system helps with quick access.

My bookmarking has four important areas I want to have quick access to. I’ve not taken this from any system out there. However, the use of green and pink come from my teaching practice in primary education.

All I have to do is use four different coloured Post-It tabs throughout my book to reference these areas I find interesting. The system has worked so far, and I can go back to content I want quicker than I would on my Kindle or Apple Books.

Blue (Mood) — I am able to record how I feel about the information. The information might invoke emotions such as inspiration, disbelief, or even contempt (very rarely).

Pink (Think) — Pink for think, as it is used in schools, is a process of reflecting and thinking about that has been read. I find these tabs appealing because I will read my past thoughts and see if my thoughts still align with what I had recorded.

Green (Growth) — Green for growth, which is another one used in schools. Growth is important to me. These pages have content that allows me to grow as a person and re-evaluate what I value.

Yellow (Future Actions) — Future actions are bookmarked where I feel a new action comes from what I have read. The content of the page may prompt new ideas and I would want to refer to them for clarity. In the past, I have set goals and my mid-year review involves going back to why I had set the goal in the first place.

Now, it is possible to have more than one coloured Post-It tab on the same page. Some content you will read prompts a flurry of thoughts, feelings, questions, and actions. This is OK. What I would say is be sparing with the tabs because the system will lose meaning if you overuse the bookmarks.

Digitalisation of notes

If I haven’t convinced you yet, you might be thinking about accessing the content wherever you are. I genuinely understand it. I also want access to my notes when I am not near the physical book. It happens more than I want to admit. The eBook options out there, like Readwise, are a creditable option. Albeit an expensive one.

I do capture my annotations for digital keeping. What I would say is you need an application that uses OCR technology because it will scan your notes for keywords.

I use Apple Notes for my notes and image captures. The application is simple to use and search is accessible through the action of swiping anywhere on my home screen.

If you are on Android, Google Keep is another great option. Just like Apple Notes, Google Keep allows you to select text from the images and paste it into another application of your choosing.

If neither of those options appeals to you, software like Evernote, Microsoft OneNote, Amplenote, and Obsidian (plugin) are suitable options.

You can decide to go with standalone OCR applications in your choose. What is important is you use what is best for you. Accessibility, especially, offline, is subject to what devices you use and how you are going to use them.

Alternatively, I would recommend Twos App to store, record and capture links, etc, to your lists (think of a Post-It note with all the information on). The application can add tags, links, images, share to the Twos World community, collaboration and so much.

Another benefit of digital capture is you can add comments to your notes. Reflecting on your notes is a good practice, and you can add other content such as relevant links, images, and videos to your notes.

Are you convinced yet?

If all else fails, I would recommend you have two copies of the book if you really don’t want to right in your books. Every so often, I have a digital copy of the book and a physical. There is nothing wrong with supporting the author with a double purchase.

The only time I will not write in a book is when I borrow a book from the local library. In this case, I will scan the pages I find important and annotate over them.

I hope you enjoyed reading my post. If you have any methods of capturing what you read, I would love to hear about them in the comments area.

As always, thank you for taking the time to read my post.

Mark @