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: notes on place, literature, history, and method :


“One of the most important functions of ‘place’
is its ability to bridge
the scholarly realm of the academic geographer
and everyday terrain of ordinary people
trying to understand the world
and make it better.
Without ‘place,’ geographers risk
losing their most important audience:
those engaged in the struggle
to carve something meaningful
out of an impersonal, abstract world.”1

  1. Steven Hoelscher, “Place,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Human Geography, ed. John A. Agnew and James S. Duncan (Chichester, West Sussex: Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 256–57. ↩︎

Read one of these. (And then read the others.)


  • Anne Carson, Autobiography of Red

  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

  • Claudia Emerson, Pinion

  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets

  • W. G. Sebald, The Emigrants

Why do you want to take notes in the first place?


Each person’s notetaking practice is—and must be—distinct. No two people have the same needs when it comes to making, organizing, and accessing notes.

Adopting someone else’s practice just because they can loudly sing its merits, or even clearly demonstrate its efficacy, may very well be an exercise in shortsightedness. A person’s notetaking practice could certainly have merits and be effective—for them—but there can be no guarantee of universality in such things.

So, a few questions to consider:

  • Why do you want (or need) to take notes at all?
  • What kind of information are you trying to store and keep track of?
  • When and how do you want to come across the stored information again?
  • Will the notes be an end in themselves or raw materials for other writings?

My own answers:

  • I take notes for the purposes of academic research and lecturing.
  • I store and keep track of the thoughts, ideas, and insights of others, as encountered in books, articles, presentations, etc., as well as my own thoughts, ideas, and insights, as they occur to me, most often in response to the thoughts (etc.) of others.
  • I want to come across the stored information both as I am writing other notes, for the purposes of making connections between ideas and insights, and as I am writing research papers and lectures.
  • My notes are both an end in themselves, to the extent that they facilitate and constitute my thinking, and raw materials for other writings.

My Starting Points

The “Inbox” Note

I keep a note that I call an “inbox” note, which is just a plaintext file on my computer. It is one of two entry-points to my notetaking pactice. When I have an idea that I want to keep track of, instead of making a new note right away (a new file on my computer), I go to my “inbox” and start writing things down, a bit freeform, right at the top.

I consider this space like a sketch pad. There is no pressure to produce anything polished or fully thought through. If I end up writing something worth keeping, I copy it into a new note (that is, a new text file—each of my notes is a separate text file, all stored in a folder called “Notes”).

If the idea doesn’t really develop or seem worth keeping, I either delete it, or just leave it there. I will write the next idea above it, and it will simply be pushed down a few lines. The bottom of my inbox is something of a graveyard of ideas. Sometimes I go through and clean them out, to “clear the inbox,” as it were. Sometimes when I do this I find something worth recovering.

The purpose of the “inbox” note is to eliminate any friction that might disrupt the actual taking of a note when the need/desire to take a note arises. It allows me to get right to the important business of putting an idea down and avoid having to fool with any other, less pressing business, like finding the right place to put the idea. I have a shortcut key that opens the inbox note right away. Highly recommended.

The “Literature” Note

Often I am taking notes on something I’m reading, be it a book, an article, or a website. After entering the appropriate citation information into my bibliographic database and assigning the resource a unique citekey, I skip the “inbox” and go straight to creating a new note dedicated to the material I am reading. This is called a literature note.1

The name of each literature note is the resource’s unique citekey followed by its author and title, like so: “Conrad1899 - Joseph Conrad - Heart of Darkness.txt”. By having a programmatic titling scheme, I always know right where to find my notes for what I’ve read.

As I read, I keep the literature note open and write down ideas, quotations, and questions as they occur to me, always making reference to the appropriate page number when relevant.

If any idea or line of thought arises while reading that seems interesting enough to stand on its own, I can make a separate note for it, and include a reference to that new note in the literature note itself. A literature note could be a page-by-page account of a resource, or it could be a list of references to stand-alone notes. Most often it is somewhere in between.2

  1. See Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017). ↩︎

  2. The matter of inserting references to other notes can be facilitated by any number of progams. I use a package I wrote for Emacs called zk, demonstrations of which can be seen here and here and here. Similar programs worth looking at are nvALT, The Archive, and Zettlr↩︎

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