5 Index Cards

blank cards composition data
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Recently I have been carrying 5 index cards in the back of my Field Notes notebook as a way of jotting down reading notes for audiobooks and magazine articles. Jotting down notes for a paper book is easy. I frequently make my notes in the margins of the book and go back through it later to see what is worth keeping. The same is true for Ebooks, although it is not quite as elegant at the margin solution for paper books. The challange, for me, has always been how to take notes for audiobooks.

I love audiobooks, They have been a game-changer in how much more I have been able to read in a given years. At the end of this coming January, I will have been an Audible subscriber for 10 years, and in that decade, I’ve accumulated nearly 1,300 audiobooks and read half that number. (It is always better to have books on my shelve–even virtual ones–that I haven’t read; those books are my anti-library). But I have always found it dificult to take notes listening to audiobooks. I think there are several reasons for this:

  1. I am frequently doing other things while listening to an audiobook: walking, exercising, emptying the dishwashing, driving somewhere, grocery shopping, etc.
  2. Unlike paper books, there is no margin in which to jot notes.
  3. The features available for bookmarking a spot in an audiobook and making a note in the app are not particularly useful.

What’s a fellow to do?

I have mostly solved this problem with 5 index cards. Each morning, I put 5 blank index cards in the back of my current Field Notes notebook. That notebook is in my back pocket at all times. As I go through my day, if I am listening to a book and something I read is noteworthy, I’ll pause the book, pull out a card, and make a note using the following procedure:

  1. If I haven’t already done so, I’ll jot the title of the book on a card.
  2. I’ll make my note as a bullet (or two, or three) on the card.
  3. If I think I want to come back to the particular passage that inspired the note, I’ll jot the timestamp at which I paused the book at the end of the bullet.
  4. If I jot the timestamp, I’ll add a bookmark in the Audible app to make it easy to get back to.
An example of a note I captured on my walk this morning while listening to the audiobook "Destiny of the Republic" by Candice Millard
An example of a note I captured on my walk this morning while listening to the audiobook Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard.

These four steps have worked out great for me. If I am walking in the morning, and want to make a note, I’ll step to the side of the bike path, pull out my notebook and a card, and jot my note, and then continue on. It is far easier for me to do this than to try to capture the note in Audible, or any other app, for that matter.

Moreover, they have solved a particular problem: I am good notetaker when I read paper books, but not nearly as good with audiobooks, mainly because of the inconvenience of doing so. But I read more audiobooks than paper books these days, simply because I can multitask doing the former, which means I don’t take notes as much as I would if I read paper books. Since switching to this index card method, my notes for audiobooks equals my notes for paper books. I use a similar process when reading magazine articles, like the randomly selected article I read at breakfast each morning. I used to scribble notes in the margins of the magazine, but I find using the cards an easier method.

An example of a note I captured while reading a recent article in WIRED magazine.
An example of a note I captured while reading a recent article in WIRED magazine.

Why five index cards? When I started doing this, I tried to think of how many cards I’d need to carry around with me. I picked five, thinking that if I filled up more on a given day, I could add to it. So far, I’ve never used all five cards on a single day, and so five seems reasonable. And five cards fits easily into the back of my Field Notes notebook with a paperclip.

At the end of the day, I toss the cards I’ve made notes on in a box on my desk. I replace the cards in my notebook with blank cards. At the end of the week, I go through the cards in my box, reviewing them, and deciding if it is worth making a permanent note from them. This is a nice buffer that provides some distance between the time I record the note and the time I review it. For those cards on which I decide to make a permanent note, I transcribe the card into Obsidian. Here is the note I created in Obsidian from the card on the “Abandon Ship” article above:

Here is what the note from the WIRED article looks like after I added it to my reading notes in Obsidian.

So far, this 5 index card system is working out well for me. I enjoy scribbling notes on the cards, which encourages me to continue to do it. I also like going through the box of cards at the end of the week, and deciding which cards, if any, a worthy of a permanent note. It gives me an opportunity to review all of the notes I’ve jotted for the week and resurfaces the thoughts I had while I was reading.

Written on October 19, 2022.

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One comment

  1. Thanks, a great suggestion. I go back and forth between field notes and thicker notebooks like the Lechturm 1917, so I can add more meeting and lecture notes, and the size makes it a much more a matter of “where will I put it” etc.

    I think this may give me an alternative.


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