October 14, 2022
I built a habit of reading books some time early last year (2021). This coincided my interest in journaling and eventually to note-taking and building a Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) with Obsidian.
With this newfound fascination with PKM, I started taking more and more highlights from the books I read on Kindle. Capturing that knowledge with these highlights allowed me to extract bits of information out of the books, and preserving in my notes in Obsidian.
However, simply capturing highlights by exporting them from Kindle is futile if there is no effective way to organise and retrieve that information later. Creativity emerges from our efforts to capture what resonates with us, an efficient organisation and connection between different ideas.
My current workflow allows me to gather information from Kindle highlights, organise them in meaningful chunks and retrieve them in various ways. Reading them again, connecting with other notes allows patterns and new ideas to emerge.
I read books either on my Kindle or on the Kindle iPad app. The ecosystem works great since I can jump between the two and my progress is synced.
I take copious amounts of highlights – things that resonate with me, that I find interesting, that relates to my previous experience, that I want to explore more later, quotes, book suggestions and more.
My exporting workflow is a a bit over-engineered because the default highlights exported by Kindle include a “location xx” info that means nothing to me.
I use a Chrome extension called Roam Highlighter (also works for Obsidian) to extract highlights from Kindle Notebook. I prefer using this extension since it allows me to format the highlights in way that works for me – in a bullet list format and with the exact metadata that I want (or don’t).
Then I copy the highlights and paste it into a new note in Obsidian within the “Book” folder. This is where I neatly organise all the highlights from books I’ve read so far.
Readwise is another great service that automates this process of exporting highlights from different sources – books, articles, tweets, podcasts etc. It also integrates with a variety of capture/read later tools like Instapaper, Raindrop which covers the needs of a majority of users.
Recently, Readwise started supporting integration with Obsidian as well, which is my note-taking app of choice. I explored exporting/syncing highlights from articles and books to Obsidian automatically through the official Readwise plugin for Obsidian. Readwise allows you to customise the formatting of the exported highlighted, which brought me closer to moving on board with it. It also creates a folder at the time of the first sync, and neatly organise highlights from books, articles etc in sub-folders.
This is where, things get interesting. For me at least.
Simply dumping all the highlights into a new note didn’t really work for me. It’s dumb, bland, devoid of any structure and useless in the long run. When I stumble upon such a note later, it must have some context in the form of chapter, sub-topics, nested points for it to make sense. This is exactly what I do.
I re-format the entire note. For non-fiction books, I divide the entire highlights into chapters and sub-topics within each chapter. This way, each block of highlights have some context – the chapter that they relate to. This way, I can still understand what the author meant despite losing the fluff in between such highlights.
For fiction, I rarely capture any highlights. And when I do, even a high level structure with chapters is enough.
This process takes some time and effort, but enjoy it.
I used to be done with this process at this point. But I realised that when I did stumble upon a note containing highlights of an entire book – roughly 10,000 words or more, it was too daunting to re-read any of those highlights. I wanted to recreate the serendipity of picking up a random book from the bookshelf, opening a random page and reading it. Albeit digitally. And with highlights.
I use an Obsidian community plugin called Note Refactor to divide a mammoth note containing the highlights into numerous sub-notes. Each sub-note contains the highlights for a chapter, instead of the entire book. This is much easier to consume, re-read, gain some insights and link to other notes and ideas. I use another plugin called Random Note to randomly discover some of these notes.
For instance, I refactored the note containing highlights from Austin Kleon’s book “Steal Like an Artist”. The primary note becomes a map of content (MOC) linking to all chapters from within the book. Even though this group of highlights from a chapter are separated from the context of the actual book, it still contains enough to stand as the essence of that chapter. It’s also easier to read again. If inspired enough, I can even go back to the book and read this entire chapter again.
This process makes these notes easier to re-read later. Using an Obsidian core plugin called Random Note, I resurface these notes randomly. This way, since they are less daunting than highlights from an entire book, I can regain some insights, refresh my memory, and connect the ideas to other notes.
In the long run, these highlights will be more useful than passively capturing and dumping them without processing.