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Book Notes: How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens


  • structure: 5/5
  • writing style: 3.5/5
  • visual elements: 0/5
  • content: 5/5
  • references: 5/5

Why did I start reading it?

I first came across this book through one of Ali Abdaal’s YouTube videos where he talks about the different levels of reading, comparing it to Harry Potter concepts and characters. The concept of having a sort of infinite resource of knowledge to draw upon and combine in new, creative ways intrigued me.

Key Points

The book looks at the prolific career of Niklas Luhmann, during his life he wrote more than 70 books and near 400 scholarly articles. He achieved this by consistently taking notes on index cards and organizing them in his “slip-box”. By linking his different notes together, he created an interconnected web of notes. When he died, he had amassed over 90 000 notes, they are being digitalized and translated by the University of Bielefeld.

It is only a matter of time before you forget what you read. You can retain information better by rephrasing the content in your own words and periodically recall and review the. This note-taking system helps you do just that. But the book also emphasizes the importance of elaborating on what we’ve learned, just like Luhmann did by writing so prolifically. When adopting a note-taking lifestyle, writing a paper or a book is nothing more than collecting the relevant notes, ordering them, and rewriting them to form a coherent text.

The Good

Like many simple ideas, the way that Smart Notes expands and elaborates on it makes a truly worthwhile experience. The book is very clearly structured and has a lot of references if you feel like you want to dig deeper into the source material.

The Bad

This is what I would call a very dry book. Other than the cover, there is no visual material to speak of. For a book that is clearly targeted to life-long learning, the lack of visual material is quite frankly disappointing.

I think the book could have used some extra editing. The second half of the book becomes somewhat repetitive. I’m not sure if the book was originally written in German and then translated to English, or written in English straight away, in any case, traces of the German language persist throughout the book. Some of the wording feels unintuitive for an English text, and I have a personal nit-pick against the translation “slip-box”. It is used constantly throughout the book and It baffles me why they didn’t choose the much clearer “note-box”.

Conclusion and the effect it had on me

How to Take Smart Notes is a must-read for anyone who wants to live a life of learning, be it during their school years or later. Halfway through the book, I even started to take notes myself, something I have never done before. But like the book says, if you’re going to end up forgetting what you read, then why bother at all? Note-taking is something I’m aiming to do from here on out, and I’m eager to witness the long-term effect it’ll have on my own knowledge retention. Also, I’ll probably have more to say about note-taking in the coming months!

Thanks for reading!