Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part series on book notes. If you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1: Considerations on the Different Approaches to Writing Book Notes.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the consumption of other people’s book notes. The first treats the notes or summary as a substitute for the source material. “Ever read 4 books in one day?” asks the popular book-summary service Blinkist in a recent advertisement. The blunt suggestion is that with tools like Blinkist, busy people can crank through books quickly and efficiently.
The second school of thought treats these summaries as a tool and a complement, not a substitute. Here the value of book notes is for the reader to record and consider the ideas of the source material. Which ideas had the biggest impact? What passages were the most memorable? The notes, therefore, are a tool for retention, reflection, and comprehension. The act of taking notes is integral to the reading experience. Bypassing this exercise shortchanges the reader.
I fall into the latter camp. I believe there’s no substitute for reading the book itself nor is there a substitute for generating my own set of notes. I do, however, enjoy reading other people’s book notes. Seeing how others summarize books improves my note-taking; it exposes me to other solutions. Looking at other people’s notes also helps me see what others find important. This is a great way to identify personal blindspots and themes I’ve overlooked while reading.
With that in mind, here are my favorite book note sites in no particular order.
Note: I have included my selection criteria in a short addendum below the main body of the article. If you can recommend any sites I missed, don’t hesitate to let me know.
Derek Sivers’ Book Notes: This is a huge archive dating back to 2009 covering a wide range of non-fiction titles (with an emphasis on business, self-improvement). Sivers’ notes are highlight style notes; they comprise short blurbs describing a passage or idea the reader found interesting and reflect little of the underlying book structure. If you’re looking for a comprehensive outline-style note, these are not it.
I enjoy Sivers’ notes because they’re different from my approach. If I could get over my need to incorporate the outline of the book (via chapter markers) into my notes, I’d look to implement more aspects of his approach.
Allen Cheng’s Book Summaries: Allen Cheng’s book notes were truly amazing. I’m using past tense here because Cheng’s site use to be free, but he has since moved all his content to new a subscription service called Shortform. These are the Moby Dick of book summaries: hefty, detailed specimens of the craft. These are the opposite of Derek Sivers highlight-style summaries. Cheng’s notes are comprehensive, detailed and hew strongly to the underlying book structure. One nice feature Cheng includes in his notes is a 1-page summary that includes main points and book highlights. Even better: you can download a PDF version of his summary.
Unfortunately, Cheng’s full outlines are no longer free at allencheng.com. I can’t fault him for monetizing his content. You can still read one-page summaries for free, but if you want the in-depth outline you need to pay for a monthly subscription.
Blas Moros’ Rabbit Hole: Rabbit Hole indeed. Moros’ book note archive dates back to 2014 and features over 500 summaries. Moros is a reading machine. The range of genres he covers is of particular note; fiction is well-represented. Moros’ non-fiction reading covers topics like science, biography and history along with more commonly seen business and self-help books.
Moros’ book notes are highlight-style. Moros follows the same template for each book: a one-sentence summary followed by a dozen key takeaways (the highlights) and some brief thoughts on what he got out of the book. As with Sivers’ book notes, I really like this approach and would implement it if I could overcome my completionist tendencies.
Nat Eliason’s Book Notes: Eliason wins hands down in the search and index category for his notes. This is a well-organized collection. Like Blas Moros, Eliason’s archive of notes features books beyond the standard business and self-help catalog. You’ll find fiction, biography, science and other topics (alongside business and self-help).
Eliason’s note-taking approach has changed over time. His earliest notes are highlight-style featuring short one-page summaries (Eliason prefers direct quotations to paraphrasing in these examples). His recent notes are outline-style and offer much more book detail and structure. This isn’t a criticism, it’s interesting to see a reader move from one end of the spectrum to the other.
- Alex J. Hughes Book Notes: Highlight style notes. I appreciate the way Hughes structures his notes around important themes he identifies from the book (noted in bold text). This helps structure his notes from a reader-centric viewpoint.
- Iyalo Durmonski’s Book Summaries: Well-structured notes that are a hybrid of the highlight and outline approaches to note-taking. Durmonski’s approach deserves a close look.
- James Clear Book Summaries: The author of Atomic Habits shares his book notes. A 3-sentence summary opens each set of notes which are done in the highlight style.
- Michael Parker’s Book Notes: Outline-style notes with excellent page references. Parker uses GitHub to host his summaries which lends a spartan aesthetic I appreciate.
- Paul Minors’ Book Summaries: These are outline style book notes with very distinctive format and style (for instance: paragraph length summaries for each chapter of the book). Good example of a more prosaic approach to note-taking.
Selection criteria: These are personal preferences.
- Note quality is of paramount importance. Your notes should be clear and well organized. I’ve found some book notes that are so abbreviated and vague that they’re only useful to the reader.
- I prefer free, non-commercial, personal sources over commercial and/or subscription sites (services like Blinkist are not included). I do make an exception for Allen Cheng’s outlines because they really were/are that good.
- I prefer text-centric book notes. I generally eschew notes with fancy layouts, styling and graphics. There are situations where diagrams and illustrations are appropriate though.
- If you’re trying to sell something via advertising, pesky newsletter popups, forced registration, or even upsell me via your book notes as a lead magnet, I’m not interested.
- I prefer sites that have significant archives of book notes (50+ books) and are actively publishing new content.