About Summarizing Books

I’m no Ernest Hemingway. Nor I’m a best-selling author. But, I know a thing or two about distilling the key ideas from wrapped pieces of paper – also called books. Up to this point, I have over 100 summaries of famous titles published on my site. It took me a little over 2 years to categorize them. And, if I can name the main thing that I’ve been asked through these years from readers, it will have to be this, “What’s your approach when summarizing books?”

People who ask me this question – I think – expect that I use some elaborate system of AI-powered algorithm that tracks the movement of my eyes and send the sections I’ve been staring at the longest to a vault with notes. And, probably, they imagine that I have piles of wooden boxes filled with index cards that are carefully arranged and adequately numbered. Others, perhaps, imagine that I’m working directly with the CEO of a modern note-taking app and I have access to a not-yet-released version that reads our thoughts and transcribes what’s inside our heads in fancy online sheets.

It’s far simpler than that. Actually, the process I use is so simple and unfancy that I sometimes think that I should re-evaluate it and add more steps to make it “look” and “sound” more interesting to others.1

And while I’ve made some improvements in terms of how I take notes from the books I read, the process is still rather simple.

In this piece, I’ll do my best to describe my book summarizing process so you can start your own project or simply take better notes when reading.

First, let’s start with, why take notes…

Why It’s Important to Take Notes?

For me, obviously, note-taking is an important step of my book-summarizing process. After all, the only way I can summarize the books I read is through my notes. However, I started taking notes from books long before this site was born.

Here’s why…

At some point, in my early 20s, I realized that the content I read was quickly forgotten. The things I found interesting in a book sat right where I left them – in the book itself.

And, what’s the point of reading business books, for example, if you can’t recall the insights of the author when you’re in a similar situation, right?

When I realized how I’m wasting my time and not taking full advantage of the contents, naturally, I started doing the simplest thing I could: writing down the most intriguing passages in a little notebook. This was before the mass adoption of smartphones – the pre-iPhone era. My phone back then was with a keypad layout.2 And, the famous note-taking apps that we all use today were not even considered for creation.

The results of this simple habit were striking!

Taking notes with a pen and paper fortified the knowledge I gained from the books. I was able to reflect on the text and later go through my commentary again which, as a result, allowed me to remember the key ideas from the author for a longer period. Additionally, this allowed me to actually use the techniques mentioned in the books I read.

My conclusion was, and still is, that solely reading rarely helps. To understand what the author wanted to say, it’s essential to re-read, re-think, and re-write what is mentioned inside a book.

Or to put it differently, if you’re not distilling the main ideas from the books you read, most of the learned material will soon become obsolete in your brain. This, of course, is if your reading goals involve taking some sort of action based on the text. If you’re just reading for entertainment, then, obviously, taking notes is not really needed.

But the process of note-taking can be used in many other ways. We’re constantly consuming content in one form or another. If you regularly take note of the most important things from the articles, podcasts, or videos you consume, you’ll create a vast library of insights that can surely come in handy in your near future.

For now, though, let’s focus on reading books. And with this in mind, let me tell you how I approach reading:

How I Read Books?

I’m a huge book fan. I adore spending time in libraries. It’s amazing that in just one shelf in a library, there can be millions of pages full of wisdom. I can spend hours flipping big volumes and reading random passages from them.

Yet, collecting physical books started to become a burden for me at some point. The physical space in my modest apartment dedicated to books was quickly filled. But that was just part of the problem. Paying for shipping was starting to hurt my budget.3 The solution was simple – ebooks.

But there was something else that made me switch from physical to ebooks – the workflow. Taking notes while you read an actual, physical book requires you to carry the book with you everywhere. Also, to take notes, you have to hold the book while you write the part you want to copy and make sure you don’t forget where you left. I mean, I’m sure you can relate if you ever had to take notes from a 700+ pages book while trying to pose for Instagram on your vintage sofa. It’s hard to balance your phone and the book.

That’s why, in 2019, I decided to switch to ebooks for good.4

Not only I was reading more because my phone is with me all the time, but I was also taking faster notes.

Of course, for some people, reading on your phone seems impossible. After all, our smartphones are famous for being distraction machines that are capable of degenerating and destroying even the best intentions. A simple beep can suck you into an hour-long online browsing experience that ends up with the purchase of “essential” items for your apartment.

The way I solved this problem is rather popular: I simply stopped all forms of notifications. All the buzzing sounds. Uninstalled and blocked social media accounts and similar crippling software that’s not really adding real value to my physical existence.

I know, for most people, this is unthinkable. Removing your social media account (+ the notifications) is like cutting your left arm and throwing it to a mob of lunatic dogs.

Yet, that’s the main reason a lot of folks are unable to meet their reading goals (or goals in general). But that’s a topic I’ll probably discuss some other time.

Let’s move on…

How I Actually Take Notes?

I use Google Keep.

Yes, as mentioned, my process is quite simple.

I’m sure, I know actually, that there are other tools available. I’ve tested some of them. But tools are only as good as your ability to work with them.

A lot of people are so preoccupied with using the most modern tool that they spend weeks reading tutorials, buying courses even, on how to actually work with this software that they end-up forgetting why they started in the first place.

Google Keep works for me because it’s super simple. The lack of extra sexy functionalities, for me, is the best functionality.

When you have fewer options you focus on doing the actual task, not preoccupying your mind with configuration and settings.

Here’s how my Google Keep account is organized:

I have labels for different things I’m taking notes on. Obviously, book summaries is one of the things I note down. Inside this label, each additional box represents a particular book. However, since there is a character limit for a single note on Google Keep, I sometimes split the note into two or more – depending on my notes.5

Here’s how I’ve organized my labels:

And, if I can give you a step-by-step process on how I summarize books it should look like this:

  1. Questions: Before I start reading, I write down a few questions that I will look for answers to in the book. For example, let’s take a look at the book Thinking in Bets. An obvious first question that I’ll look to answer is, “What is thinking in bets?” Then, probably this one, “Why thinking in bets is important and how I can think in bets?”6
  2. The purpose of the book: What’s the main purpose of the book? What’s the goal of the author? These are usually answered in the opening chapter of any book. Answering these questions helps me later formulate the following two sections in my book summaries: The Book In Three Or More Sentences and The Core Idea.
  3. Outline themes: Ideas in books are usually spread out. On page 20 you can spot a great idea about X. Then, 100 pages later, you can find additional information about this same idea, X. That’s why, when I take notes in my app, I try to highlight themes, I don’t simply summarize sections. For example, I’ll write: “Theme 02: We have a tendency to equate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome.” Then, I copy and paste sections from the book that reinforce this specific idea. As mentioned, the sections can be from different parts of the book.
  4. Outline actionable steps: Nonfiction books are full of actionable steps that you can practice – that’s why I love them. How to spot such practical lessons? Think about the following, “Is this applicable in the life of the average person?” Again, if we look at the book Thinking in Bets, there is a tool called 10-10-10. It’s about asking yourself the following set of questions: “[W]hat are the consequences of each of my options in ten minutes? In ten months? In ten years?” Everybody can benefit from this. You simply ask yourself a set of questions in a situation.

Here are a couple of additional things I do when I take notes:

  • I use the following phrase to highlight quotes from the text: “Quotes:”
  • I use the following to distinguish my thoughts from the words in the actual book: “Me:” Basically, what comes after “Me:” is mine annotation of the text. This later helps me when I write the summary.
  • As mentioned, I use “Theme #” and after that, I add text from the book that’s related to the particular topic. I use bullets to separate different sections from the book.
  • I use an additional note that I label “The Name of the Book #2” when I’ve reached the limit of the first note.

Here’s part of my notes on Thinking in Bets:

google keep summary
What follows after every “-” is from the book, Thinking in bets.

I make sure to follow the same structure with every summary. This way, whenever I need a quote to reinforce my text in one of the lessons, I can simply search in my notes using the phrase “quotes”. I do the same to figure out what lessons I’ll include in the final summary – I search for, “themes”.

How I Actually Write a Summary?

Reading the actual book is the easy part.

Once I’m done with the text, I sit down and I try to make sense of the notes I took.

Many times, “exciting” ideas I thought that I’ll surely add don’t end up in the final draft. That’s why I strive to add more text.

There’s not much I can add to this part. It’s basically reading my notes, going back to the text, and then writing.

Even if you don’t plan to publish your notes somewhere public, conducting a summary of any written material is a great way to reinforce your understanding of the subject. For me, the writing part is where I actually get the text. When you’re given the chance to rephrase ideas from someone else you can only do it if you fully understand the whole concept.

Some Closing Thoughts

Having a clear, tangible purpose when you read a book will make you more engaged and sharpen your focus. You become highly involved with the text and you actively look for interesting parts that you can later work with.

The best part about writing book summaries is that you give yourself permission to think deeply about the text and the ideas inside. When you start to lay down the concepts mentioned in your own words, you move from, “I can’t say it clearly” to, “I am familiar with this.”

And, finally, the more books you summarize, the more you’ll build connections with past books and further strengthen, and widen, your knowledge on different subjects.


Footnotes:

  1. Of course, I won’t do that.
  2. Yes, imagine a Nokia 3310 type of phone. It’s quite hard to take notes when you have to press 5 three times to get to the letter L.
  3. The average delivery price when using Amazon to Bulgaria is around 8 USD.
  4. Not that I pose for Instagram while I read, but mainly because copying text from an ebook is super simple.
  5. The character limit on Google Keep per note is 20,000. This is around 3,500 words. However, keep in mind that the limit also includes spaces. Meaning that each space eats up from your characters.
  6. I suggesting reading the following book about getting better at reading: How to Read a Book.