Creating an ‘idea index’

In an interview from 2014 Maria Popova, curator of the wonderful Brain Pickings blog, explained how she reads books. Cal Newport summarises on his blog:

Around thirty-one minutes into the interview, Popova explains how she takes notes on books:

  1. As she reads, she creates an index at the front of the book that lists its most interesting ideas.
  2. Every time she encounters a passage relevant to one of these ideas she adds the page to the relevant line in the index. If its a new idea, she creates a new line for it.
  3. As she reads more, the index grows.

Here’s what’s great about this idea index method: When you pick up a book read long ago, you can quickly recall what it has to offer by glancing at the index. Then, if you want to grab some quotes about one of these ideas, the index tells you exactly where to look (no more reading every annotation!).

I also find this a really appealing idea. I tend to underline & scribble notes & fold corners for particularly important pages  (in my books) or use mini post (in library books) to mark parts of the text to come back to. However the only structure between the notes tends to be how they are sequences so it leaves me running back through a text in a very linear way. Popova’s method seems a lot better in that respect. Particularly when I use a Kindle, my approach to reading can sometimes feel like mining for ideas in a way I’m unhappy with. If I’m enjoying the book then it’s not a problem. But if I’m a little bored or the author writes badly, I sometimes slip into something that’s far closer to skim reading to ‘extract’ useful bits then I’m happy with.