Posted by September Blue Friday, 1 February 2008

Somewhere in the ether of possibilities exists The Best Way to take notes, and I haven't found it yet. Part of me sometimes craves the organised simplicity of revision notes for my science exams - handwritten, meticulously bullet-pointed, three different colours of ink (blue as a default, green for technical terms, red for equations and diagrams) - and then I remember that I only ever kept that up for a page or two before abandoning it in favour of the many, many things more appealing to my teenage self than science revision, anyway. If that's The Best Way, then it's doomed to be a brief one.

I've given up on taking notes for anything that doesn't strictly need it. Papers, conferences, and the undergraduate lectures TAs still have to attend, are all note-free now. Why bother, if I can't write down anything I'll ever need or want to read again? Like playing chess, note-taking during presentations is a skill I just don't have. But there's no way around it when you're working on written material, and so I flit from highlighter to bullet-point to margin scribble, while the perfect mechanism for taking notes sits (I am convinced) somewhere in a disregarded office of my mind, drinking tea from a Kobayashi cup, smirking.

You can write in the margins. If you've got over your instinctive skin-crawling aversion to writing on books, that is, you can write in the margins. But then, what do you write? My notes here are brief, crippled by self-awareness (isn't that stating the obvious? Aren't I trying to sound too smart here? What does that even mean?). Two or three pages, and I'm back to the comfort of underlines and highlighters (on photocopies! only on photocopies!), or torn-up bits of Post-It, or these useful items, which just mutely, non-judgementally point at things I might want to see again. The idea is always that I'll go back through the text and summarise everything highlighted into a simple document, one that will make sense on its own merits, one neatly built with the bricks of quotations and the mortar of my own commentary; the idea usually remains an idea. I read somewhere (and, ha, didn't note down the reference) that one of the least useful ways to take notes is to assemble a list of quotations scattered with the occasional paraphrase. Lazy! Simplistic! Unworthy of a real scholar! But if there's an alternative that works, it eludes me yet.

The Best Way, I'm dimly sure, also requires going through one book at a time and summarising it as a whole once your productive self reaches the end. But I don't read this way; I don't do anything this way. Currently, there are six different books in grabbing distance of the computer, all with bookmarks in different places. (The novels and non-fiction piled up by my bed are in the same state.) How is it even possible to read one book at once, especially when you're reading it intensively with your critical head on, without getting bored and resenting it three chapters in? Don't you start wondering what's in all those other books? Counting down pages to the end of a chapter, bargaining with yourself that you'll make some coffee once you get to the next subheading, forcing yourself to read the same sentence eight times over because it's going in one eye and out of the other? I'm probably not making useful notes anyway, but that mindset wouldn't help.

So here's what I've got at the moment: a Word document divided into six sections (so far), one each for the five books that I've noted anything from and one for scrappy, half-formed, stream of consciousness drafts of the argument I'm working on myself. The notes themselves are mostly quotations, or paraphrases, interspersed with cryptic little messages like 'Augustine->Bordieu(?)(!)' (and this doesn't even mean anything to me now, and I only wrote that last night). Nothing's finished yet; I am, effectively, fighting a war on six fronts, and the troops don't know where they're going.

I've spent twenty-three years of my life (dear God) in full-time education. Surely I've got this sorted out by now. And yet, I can't help thinking that there exists a Best Way, and that all my efforts have merely overlooked it as it strolls past me unrecognised, out into the world.


  1. Laz Says:
  2. God, I hated taking notes in lectures. I wasn't much better with notes for essays as I recall, but since I've done my best to repress those memories, I can't be sure...

  3. Sisyphus Says:
  4. Ah, this is so me. Except I had been told that the note-and-quote file with your own words woven between them was actually a very good way to draft things ---- it's faster and messier and people who use this method are much less likely to be bogged down in perfectionism or writer's block.

    read the same sentence eight times over because it's going in one eye and out of the other?

    heh heh. I like that expression. I know that expression.