I have trouble sometimes remembering what I read. This failing applies to nonfiction, fiction, books, and articles alike. It frustrates me endlessly. I like reading. Part of the reason I like reading is that in spite of the fact that you might be enjoying yourself, reading feels like a productive activity and one that has some educational value. I enjoy the thought that I’m learning, becoming wiser. But, what then, when you don’t remember what you read? Suddenly, what felt like productivity seems like waste.
I comfort myself with the possibility that perhaps, even through my inability to recall particular details and facts, maybe the meaning and the meat
of what I’ve read is still there somewhere waiting to be tapped into or is influencing me in small, subtle ways. But, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just all, gone.
And so, motivated by the fear that I’m not necessarily retaining what I read, I’ve been looking for a system and for tools to help.I’ve tried a few things, from meticulously jotting down into notebooks excerpts and quotations to using applications like OneNote or Evernote, perhaps combined with bookmarking tools like Pocket. But all were lacking in one way or another. Now, after significant trial and error, I feel like I’ve got something that works. It’s not perfect (and I’m making little adjustments and improvements as I go) – but, it’s pretty good.
Why have a system?
What was wrong – what was missing – with the paper and pencil or Evernote solutions that I’d tried previously? Well, to get to that, I’ll illustrate exactly what I want in an ideal system:
I want to be able to record. I want to be able to keep in one place all the interesting things I find – whether it’s a couple of key sentences in an article on fitness, a paragraph or two from a brilliant essay in an online magazine, or a sentence here and there (as well as my own comments) from a book I’ve read.
I want to be able to organize. I’d like to have some sort of folder/categorizing/tagging system. That way I can keep my notes together and organized by subject or area of interest. And I’d like to have the ability to keep this pretty detailed.
And I’d like to be able to search. A year from now, I want to be able to search, by tag, within my notes, within original text, for phrases like “Memory” or “Montaigne” or “The Civil War” and see everything I’ve ever found interesting about or including that language. I want to be rid of the moments when I think maybe I read something kind of about something in a particular book, only to never locate it.
I want to use this to find things as I recall them or to find things after I’ve forgotten them. A quick skim through such a catalogue may help me rediscover thoughts or interests I had a few months ago but had since abandoned. I want to keep a careful, curated breadcrumb trail of all my interests.
In short, I need a system that allows me to record, organize, and search.
For me, what has ended up working has been the research tool Zotero.
Why Zotero, and how do I use it?
In terms of the basics of what Zotero is, I’ll let them speak for themselves. The below was pulled from their About page,
Zotero is a free, open-source research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.
To get a sense of what the landscape of the tool looks like while in usage, below is a screenshot of my working version of Zotero. As you can see, it looks very different from your traditional bookmarking and note-taking tools. This, for me is perhaps one of its biggest advantages. It’s designed to be a research tool, and thus the focus is on organizing and sorting your information rather than on writing or on developing ‘read-later’ lists. With this in mind, it’s incredibly powerful. Should you so desire, you could sort, tag, categorize, and annotate all your favorite quotes from all your favorite books and then search within, sort, and rearrange these quotes according to different themes or topics. You can do so quickly and without disrupting the underlying data. Every document you add is saved as an item, which you can then add notes to and tags to and store within folders.
To provide a bit more detail, here is how I use it:
1) While reading online, if I come across something I want to store and remember, I save it with the Zotero bookmarklet and it automatically saves a copy of whatever I was viewing. In addition, any text is auto-indexed and made searchable. When saving the material, Zotero also automatically adds in any available metadata (things like Author, Website Name, Article Title, Date Published). When I next go into Zotero, a new entry will have automatically have been added and the metadata populated.
Figure 2, Zotero Bookmarklet; source: zotero.org
2) With my items now in Zotero, I can sort and arrange them within a folder structure of my choosing. Zotero also allows for the same item to be stored within multiple folders – for those cases where mutual exclusivity just isn’t possible and I can’t decide if something should fall under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Psychology.’
3) For each item in Zotero (remember, an item is a document – a book, magazine article, etc.), anything that I find myself wanting to highlight or remember, I add as a note. Notes are attached to specific items, and you create notes as you need them. For some articles, I have one to two notes. For a book, I may have over 100. To keep things organized, I’ll assign each note a number so that each note/highlight stays in sequential order, just like how it appears in the text. (If numbers aren’t used, Zotero by default sorts alphabetically.)
As an example, see Figure 3 below. The middle pane currently shows all the notes (lines prefaced by a yellow sticky note) that are attached to the item Life’s Stories, the name of an article that appeared in The Atlantic. The rightmost pane shows the details of the particular note that is currently highlighted. As I read an article, if there are particular excerpts that I find interesting or want to remember, I will copy it over as a note. By making something a note, I give myself a higher chance of finding it again in the future. It also now appears in my reading pane. Another way of thinking of it is your notes are all the quotes you would want to write down.
4) On a note level as well as an item level, I assign tags according to topic or theme so as it make it easier for me to locate the note or item later. Tags work across folder structures and allow for an even more specific level of detail. Many tags can be assigned to a single note or item.
As an example, I’ll refer again to the note that appears above in Figure 3. The text of the note reads:
It can be hard to share a story when it amounts to: “This happened, and it was terrible. The end.” In research McLean did, in which she asked people who’d had near-death experiences to tell their stories to others. “The people who told these unresolved stories had really negative responses,” she says. If there wasn’t some kind of uplifting redemptive end to the story (beyond just the fact that they survived), “The listeners did not like that.”
I assigned to this note the tags ‘trauma,’ ‘resilience,’ and ‘personal narratives.‘ Although these words themselves don’t appear in the excerpt, they do describe concepts the excerpt touches on. In addition, these tags are topics I have some interest in and could imagine myself wanting to search for in the future. By adding these tags, I increase my chances of finding this note when I’m looking for it. There is certainly an art and some subjectivity in determining what words to use for tags and how many tags to assign to a note. I always try to imagine the different angles from which I might want to discover the text again in the future and then design my tags to fit that.
5) Once I have a few items in my Zotero database, I can perform advanced searches, utilizing any or all of the features mentioned above – full text searching through the original document, within particular folders, through the notes I’ve added, or through tags.
A note on physical books and other non-digitized material,
Zotero can automatically locate book metadata (author, predefined tags, publisher, call number, etc.) given an ISBN number. But, the rest of the process is of course rather manual. Typically my method now is that as I read, I highlight and add notes in the margins of the physical book. Then, every few chapters or so, I go back in and type up each highlight as a note attached to the book entry in Zotero. Each note is assigned tags that I think are relevant. I have to admit that this is a time consuming process and for books that you’re reading purely for entertainment value with less care for what you remember/get out of it, this type of process probably doesn’t make sense. However, for books where you are reading as much (or even more) for information as for entertainment, where you want to remember what you read, I find the act of going back and typing up the sentences and paragraphs that were most salient to me incredibly valuable in helping to cement, digest, and thus retain what I’ve read. And then, once done, you have the important parts of the book digitized, categorized, and more accessible to you in the future.
In the end, I have a carefully organized, easily searchable, personal database of anything and everything that I’ve ever read and found interesting. I can look up a topic or keyword and find documents I had forgotten about. Through my tagging system, I can make connections between different things I’ve read, where it may not have been evident before that it was possible for connections to be made. Through a cursory skim, I am inspired over and over again. And I actually have a chance at finding that particular quote that was in that one book about that one thing, should my memory fail me.
Zotero is free and open source, so I encourage you to give it a try and see if it works for you. https://www.zotero.org/ (In case it wasn’t obvious, this isn’t sponsored by Zotero/I have no affiliation with them. I just like their software.)
*And if you’re really into data, you can export your Zotero data in a variety of formats to have a different sort of personal database to play with.