Notes, Highlights, and Marginalia: From E-books to Online

Notes on an outlined workflow for sharing notes, highlights, and annotations from ebooks online.

For several years now, I’ve been meaning to do something more interesting with the notes, highlights, and marginalia from the various books I read. In particular, I’ve specifically been meaning to do it for the non-fiction I read for research, and even more so for e-books, which tend to have slightly more extract-able notes given their electronic nature. This fits in to the way in which I use this site as a commonplace book as well as the IndieWeb philosophy to own all of one’s own data.[1]

Over the past month or so, I’ve been experimenting with some fiction to see what works and what doesn’t in terms of a workflow for status updates around reading books, writing book reviews, and then extracting and depositing notes, highlights, and marginalia online. I’ve now got a relatively quick and painless workflow for exporting the book related data from my Amazon Kindle and importing it into the site with some modest markup and CSS for display. I’m sure the workflow will continue to evolve (and further automate) somewhat over the coming months, but I’m reasonably happy with where things stand.

The fact that the Amazon Kindle allows for relatively easy highlighting and annotation in e-books is excellent, but having the ability to sync to a laptop and do a one click export of all of that data, is incredibly helpful. Adding some simple CSS to the pre-formatted output gives me a reasonable base upon which to build for future writing/thinking about the material. In experimenting, I’m also coming to realize that simply owning the data isn’t enough, but now I’m driven to help make that data more directly useful to me and potentially to others.

As part of my experimenting, I’ve just uploaded some notes, highlights, and annotations for David Christian’s excellent text Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History[2] which I read back in 2011/12. While I’ve read several of the references which I marked up in that text, I’ll have to continue evolving a workflow for doing all the related follow up (and further thinking and writing) on the reading I’ve done in the past.

I’m still reminded me of Rick Kurtzman’s sage advice to me when I was a young pisher at CAA in 1999: “If you read a script and don’t tell anyone about it, you shouldn’t have wasted the time having read it in the first place.” His point was that if you don’t try to pass along the knowledge you found by reading, you may as well give up. Even if the thing was terrible, at least say that as a minimum. In a digitally connected era, we no longer need to rely on nearly illegible scrawl in the margins to pollinate the world at a snail’s pace.[4] Take those notes, marginalia, highlights, and meta data and release it into the world. The fact that this dovetails perfectly with Cesar Hidalgo’s thesis in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies,[3] furthers my belief in having a better process for what I’m attempting here.

Hopefully in the coming months, I’ll be able to add similar data to several other books I’ve read and reviewed here on the site.

If anyone has any thoughts, tips, tricks for creating/automating this type of workflow/presentation, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Footnotes

[1]
“Own your data,” IndieWeb. [Online]. Available: http://indieweb.org/own_your_data. [Accessed: 24-Oct-2016]
[2]
D. Christian and W. McNeill H., Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, 2nd ed. University of California Press, 2011.
[3]
C. Hidalgo, Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies, 1st ed. Basic Books, 2015.
[4]
O. Gingerich, The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicolaus Copernicus. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2004.
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