Sanna here, reporting from Nerd Central. Today I want to share something that I find more exciting than I should admit. Like, this is basically porn for my project manager brain. I just want to scroll through the neatly organized columns, tweak the comments, add tags …
Sorry, got ahead of myself there. It’s really only exciting if you a) read a lot, especially on a digital device, b) care to structure all your highlights and notes so you can access them easily later, and c) are structure fanatic who should seek professional help.
Ever since I turned my reading digital in 2015 and discovered the magic of highlights in my Kindle, I’ve wondered why there’s no easy way to extract and organize them. Back then, even accessing them was a hassle, but that was made easier in 2016 - now you can email them in PDF and CSV format*.
A couple of weeks ago I came across this post by Simon Hørup Eskildsen, where he shares his approach to reading. It’s amazing – I’ve never heard of anyone being this intentional and structured about their reading. It made me want to step it up a notch, especially for making the gathered knowledge more accessible. Memory won't cut it, unfortunately. Since I’m already actively investing time in my reading, it doesn’t make sense to not invest those extra 10 percent. A small effort of planting seeds that could pay off for years to come.
It will without doubt evolve and grow more complex with time, but for now, I thought it might be interesting to share my starting point, for others with similar obsessive tendencies. Because we’re all nerds here, right?
Weapon of choice: Airtable
I’ve worked with Airtable in a couple of client projects before, I liked what I saw, but these days I’m reluctant to invest time into a tool just because it’s new and shiny (I’ll save that impulse for pole wear). Then Heather shared her business setup earlier this summer, as I was getting ready to start a personal project, and that sealed it for me.
Airtable is described as part spreadsheet, part database, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. What makes it useful for almost anything you can imagine is how it manages the balance between being incredibly powerful and complex, while remaining simple to use. It’s impressive and never feels overwhelming.
Together with Bear, it’s the foundation of most things I create. Bear for writing, Airtable for structure.
Highlights structured in Airtable
Here’s my structure, let’s call it 1.0. My main objectives are findability and context. This means:
- Quotes are by default grouped by book title, but also categorized and tagged.
- Comments to explain why I highlighted that section and link to the PDF with highlights, where I find the exact location and go through it again.
- Easy to pull out relevant information for each quote; the name of the book, author, and link to Amazon page where I can dive into details if needed.
As you can see, it's not complicated, and I've just gotten started with the process of adding tags and comments for the books I've imported so far.
Process to get there
It's straightforward, but for someone who's not used to these tools, seeing them listed might make it clear if this is for you. I'm referring to Kindle here, but I assume other devices have some equivalent functionality.
- Use highlight on your Kindle, and I'd recommend adding notes to it. I've been lazy with this, but now I'm making a deliberate effort to provide context for Future Sanna, who is often very confused by Past Sanna. I highlight for different reasons, sometimes because I found the phrasing beautiful or amusing, sometimes because it’s insightful and I want to remember it, sometimes it's a topic I want to look up. Clarifying this as a note will save me time later.
- Go to Notes in your Kindle device and click Export. They will be sent as PDF and CSV to your email.
- In Airtable, create a new base - I'd start with a blank spreadsheet instead of a template. Then play around with the structure.
- Copy the columns you want from the CSV file and paste them in Airtable.
- See how it feels when you start adding tags and categories to quotes - does it make sense? If not, restructure and try something else (it's surprisingly painless).
- When you have your content and basic structure, you can start to play around with views, groups and filter. Organize them based on tags, group them on type of book, or search after something specific.
And that's what I've got so far! In a couple of months, this will likely have evolved into something different. Updates to come.
*At least if you read on an actual Kindle. If you read on their app it looks like you can only get it in HTML. Amazon, you make it really fucking difficult for your users sometimes. Some consistency would be greatly appreciated.
PS: If you take a shot every time you read organize, context, structure or highlight, this post makes for a great drinking game.