Episode 86 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with UX design researcher Veronica Erb. One of the ways I’ve been doing research for Duly Noted is by asking people about their note-taking practices on Twitter. Veronica responded to one of my tweets with a thoughtful thread, and we agreed to discuss it further on the show.

It was great to hear about her process. Veronica publishes a newsletter called Finding Out, and we talked about how insights from her reading end up in the newsletter via outlines in OneNote. Reading and marking go hand-in-hand, and Veronica cited a footnote from Kory Stamper’s book Word by Word1 that resonated with her: “You don’t read without marking; you can’t mark without reading.” She elaborated:

For a certain kind of reading and a certain kind of understanding, I can’t read without taking notes and I can’t take notes without reading. But it’s only certain things. I can understand a novel just fine without marking it up.

This is an important distinction: we read differently depending on what (and why) we’re reading. Note-taking — making marks on the world to aid our cognition — can be very beneficial, especially if what you’re looking to do is recall or think about the material. Veronica continued:

Every person who reads, I think, has this happen where you read something and you know that you touched every word, and it went into your brain, but you can’t recall what you just read. It’s how I know it’s time for me to go to sleep at night! But that is very much the experience for me of reading a certain kind of text that doesn’t have a certain kind of narrative. And I kind of have gotten the intuition for when that’s happening, and if it’s important enough, I will go get a copy of the book and write it down. It’s like I have to turn the text into a conversation in order for it to kind of come into my brain in a meaningful way.

This was one of many points that sparked recognition in me: I’ve been in “conversation” with many books in this way, and marginalia are how I manifested my side of the dialog. If you like to read books — especially non-fiction, and especially when looking to learn — it behooves you to listen to this episode.

The Informed Life episode 86: Veronica Erb on Annotating Books

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