Notes: More Than Just an Aid to Memory, a Source of Invention

By Katie King 



This OGB Session was conducted by Malachy Walsh, a self proclaimed ad-man with a fascination for the history of note-taking. With the help of the OGB online classroom, the group delves into the history of note-taking, what type of people take notes, different forms of note-taking, and most importantly, realizing the purpose of the notes we take.

After a brief survey of the classroom, most participants agreed on a few different points they wanted out of the discussion. Students mentioned their need for a more efficient and concise reading of the text. One participant mentioned having started Adler’s How To Read A Book and wondered if he was “doing too much” by getting bogged down in the details of the text. Many agreed to this point, and felt a need for a means to intelligently distill information down. As the survey continued, a common theme began to emerge– most people saw their note-taking as merely being a part of the reading process. Understanding why we take our notes in the first place, beyond just an aid to our memory, is a central theme in this discussion.


The first thing Malachy noticed when he began conducting his own research on the history of note-taking was the many different kinds of systems people use. J.K. Rowling, for example, formats her notebook like excel sheets.   Wayne Booth, the notable literary critic, used what was popular the 1960’s, padfolios. James Patterson uses the 8.5” by 14” pads, writing on every other line. If you open Da Vinci’s notebooks, they are full of sketches and studies for his paintings and contraptions. Edison, on the other hand, kept a big book filled exclusively with failures of every experiment he conducted. Mark Twain wasn’t just recording things– he was collecting things as a means of discovery and creativity. Malachy points out it doesn’t make any difference what system you use, just that you have one. Every successful person in history has a system they adhere to in which they collect and recombine their thoughts and notes. Your note-taking system, whatever it may be, helps you pose as Socrates and formulate an inner dialogue throughout the text.


When you first begin to delve into the history of note-taking, you’ll primarily find registries and journals. These lists and sequences are far less artifacts of creative thought; instead, they exist more as tracks the writer leaves behind as he or she moves toward an ultimate goal.  


One of the first journal we have is Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, divided into 12 books that chronicle different periods of his life.

Aurelius used a commonly known method at the time, the “Examen”. This is a spiritual practice of the ancient Stoics as well as being in common spiritual exercises for modern day Catholics.

From Ignatian to Jesuit spirituality, people use the “Examen” method to investigate their moral lives by asking what virtuous things they’ve done in a day, what they can do to better themselves, and what they will do tomorrow. Malachy notes that it is important these day logs remain sequential in order to aid the writer’s memories.

As time went on, the distinction between journaling and note-taking became more apparent. Defining the terms of a note, as opposed to a journal, can be a little trickier.

Historically, the concept of note-taking emerged along with the idea of a commonplace book that the compiler can fill with snatched fragments from texts. The writer could then organize and store this information for later reference (to impress their peers with their literary knowledge at a party, perhaps?).

In today’s world, many of us were taught the Cornell system of note-taking at some point in our schooling. Many of us treated this method of note-taking as a running commentary with rigid parameters, opting to leave it behind in our high school literature classes. The Cornell system is far different than the Index Card system that Malachy advocates for, as referenced in the method portion of this discussion.

As you can see, both journals and notes are instrumental in different ways. Viewing your desired note-taking method as a form of choice architecture is paramount in developing a leader’s approach for structuring your notes and your life.


Professionally speaking, writers and historians have to be good at taking notes as they form collections for stories. Journalists have to be good at taking quick notes on a whim.


The key issue is learning how to move past using notes just as a part of the reading process but as a referencial tool to analyze and reflect on larger themes in the text as well as our personal lives.



First, ask yourself the purpose for your note-taking, then you can find the technique that best works for you.

The virtue of cards, whatever size you use, is in their portability. The virtue of keeping a journal, is that it’s sequential. Different projects require different methods.

Malachy notes that cards and half sheets are helpful because they aren’t intimidating. You can fill up a half sheet with whatever you’d like- things to remember, parts of the text to think through, connections you’ve drawn, or even a list of things you want to accomplish in the future through monitoring your various topical journals.


The first time reading through a book, identify key issues and names of primary characters in one sentence at the end of each chapter. Malachy also recommends putting checkmarks next to notable names, places, or any relevant factoids.

Malachy highly recommends using a headline format your first time through. Headlines, as opposed to just jotting down the key issues, captures ideas about the topic as opposed to just a surface read.

He keeps one set of notes to prepare himself for having great conversations, another set of notes for personal reference. By separating your notes into immediate and practical uses, you’ll have a much easier time recalling valuable snippets.

Things to consider for discussion-based notes: focus on the world we all share when we get together in seminar, share your notes concisely with that vision in mind.


Malachy notes that the key to the Q&A method is to make each note the answer to a question central to understanding the thing you are reading. This can be further divided by the type of reading you are engaging with, whether that be an epic, play, novel, work of history or philosophy text.

If you are reading a story like an epic, play, work of history or novel, you use story questions. Since by definition stories involve a sequence of events, for each chapter Malachy writes a summary in a few sentences that answer a reporter’s questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why.  He then makes a card dividing the action into no more than 10 parts, each described by a phrase that cues his memory. He puts a page or line numbers with each section so he can find it easily if he is looking for a quote or detail. When dozens of things happen in a chapter, he will try to sort then into a few groups, give the group a name, and categorize appropriately.  He ends each chapter with a few cards that are easy to reference.

Next, he adds cards relevant to the whole book, e.g. themes, character motivation, style of language.  People often make the mistake when taking notes of trying to create a cliff notes summary instead of answering Adler’s questions or your own questions on the work.  

For a play, Malachy might ask questions about staging, costuming or acting style. For example, who would make a good Romeo and Juliet today?  

For Philosophy, Malachy makes a list of the key questions addressed in the chapter and a one sentence answer for each, with page numbers. He records notes on key terms and lists. For example, the four virtues, Lincoln’s cabinet,  the muscle groups in the hand.

The Q&A method of notes cues our memories rather than substituting for them.  Dedicating each card or sheet of paper to a single area of questioning allows you to be brief and focused.  As we continue to read the Great Books, you will learn how to ask new and better questions. Why do we want to read stories or engage in arguments in the first place?   Is it more a matter of how much or what you remember? What questions are most important for your life right now? Does this book help you answer them? Malachy notes that the older he gets, the more answers King Lear and Aristotle have for him.

Simply put, the piles of notes end up in a natural organization by the kind of question they address.



Homer, Shakespeare, Dante. Writers from every period will agree on the profound influence of these three literary giants. Therefore, taking meaningful notes of the Great Books will not only teach you how to talk about the text with your peers, but develop your own self confidence around these books.


What creates unity of notes in the great epics?

When answering this question, it’s important to remember that your note is only complete when you answer the question you are addressing. For example, when does the beginning section of The Iliad end? There’s not a right answer, but it’s a good point to start your note taking. As you progress with the reading, you will have ample opportunities to reexamine your question and answer.


I’m on Chapter 11 of The Iliad. When I’m done at the end of the chapter, what should I look for when I circle back through after I’ve made my checkmarks?

After you’ve come to that natural stopping point, look for ways to categorize your notes. Keep it concise so that you can find it easily. Pick your top 3 talking points you’d like to bring up with the group with evidence to back it up. In a classroom setting, this will also combat asking randomized questions in discussion and keep the group focused on the text.


What if you have a death grip on the first reading of the text?

Focus on only making notes of the important things to you, specifically. This is a skill that is good for business, for life, and for planning.


If you’re up against a roadblock and you can’t wait to get through a book, what is the worth of note-taking?

In this group dynamic setting, think about what you are missing that everyone else seems to be onboard with. Try to get their point of view- it may be a sign that you need to do more, not less.


Do you use digital note taking apps? If so, are there any shortcomings?

Many of the members mentioned Evernote as the digital system they’ve used. Mindjet is also a recommended mind mapping software. One member noted that this app is not particularly great for accumulating initial data, but the graphic representation carries clarity and meaning. One problem that exists with digital note-taking is that you can’t spread your notes all out on a table when you’re working with a big set of issues as you can with physical paper.


The Iliad is a man’s story filled with war. What do you do if you’re a female reading a man’s story?

In the Iliad, Homer certainly doesn’t romanticize war. Women, especially mortals, are cast in trivial roles.  In this way, you can see how the narrative appears more male-dominated; however, the universal implications are profoundly meaningful. A woman’s attentiveness to what happens between people, her understanding of grief and loss, her eye for details of the physical world, can surpass an initial surface read filled with male aggression.

Keep in mind, what will be valuable to yourself and everyone else in the group isn’t capturing the book, it’s finding what is valuable to you and expressing honestly and openly. What did you really like/dislike? What did you personally connect with?


Early in the session, Walsh jokes that this particular online class is merely a ruse to recruit people who suffer from OCD. As any compulsive note-taker would point out, our fixation on capturing things that we are afraid of losing stems from a deep psychological neurosis that we somehow feel we aren’t attaining the things we want in life.

Rather than feed into this fear, the key to fruitful note-taking is to start concisely. Later on, if you wish to become a scholar at the given text, you can always delve deeper by asking more questions. Impose limits on yourself, ask for the “Big 3”. The biggest myth is that people sit down at keyboards and write. Half of the time you spend “writing” is really sorting through your notes. Allow your note-taking to become an amazing tool that brings clarity to your discussions and your life.


A collection of the famous writers and thinkers Malachy mentioned in this session and the note-taking system they used.

Mortimer Adler– Used half sheets of paper

Wayne Booth– Pad Portfolios, used half sheets of paper

Leonard Bernstein (author of West Side Story)- Wrote the outline to his story on 3 by 5 cards

Da VinciKept a mixed media journal of his inventions

Thomas EdisonKept a written account of all his failures

Vladimir Nabakov  (author of Lolita) -Wrote all his books on index cards

James Patterson– Uses 8.5 by 14” pads

JK Rowling Uses excel-like sheets formed thematically in a notebook