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How I Take Notes on What I Read for a Trade Book

Now that I have finished writing the draft of my book on the afterlife – which I’m tentatively titling “Heaven, Hell, and the Invention of the Afterlife  (that will be the title until my publisher changes it!!) – I have received several questions from blog members about aspects of the writing itself.  One reader wanted to know how I keep track of all the things that I read in preparation for writing a book like this (or like anything else).  Here is how:

When I decide what the next book is going to be, I start in on research by reading some of the most basic, thorough, and relatively recent discussions of the topic by competent scholars.  I typically know already what those books are because, well, I’m a scholar in the field and one gets to know these things.  Plus, if you want to write a book about something, you already know a good deal about it, including who has written what about it.

From there I start compiling bibliography of everything of importance written about it (both by searching library catalogues and, more important, seeing bibliographies in the books I’ve read, noting the relevant books and articles cited, reading those, seeing what books and articles they’ve cited, and so on and on).  For a trade book written for a general audience, I typically stick *mainly* to reading books – although if there are really important scholarly articles, I’ll read those too.   I expand and expand and expand the bibliography until just about everything of importance is on there, and I keep reading and reading and reading.

The reading for the book typically takes a couple of years.   But how do I keep track of it all?

I sometimes get asked if I have my graduate students do the reading for me and tell me what this, that, or the other scholar says about this, that, or the other thing.  I think people who ask me that (or who claim that this is what I do) simply don’t believe that I’d go to the bother of reading all this stuff myself.  And, well, that’s completely wrong.  I read everything myself and take notes on everything I read.

I do sometimes have graduate students do some work for me, and they can be very helpful indeed   I typically assign them one of two tasks.  Both tasks are designed to train them in how to do research and do provide some useful assistance for me.  The first task is I have them compile bibliography for me.  And so I’ll tell as student, “Come up with a bibliography of every book and article (in English, French, German, and Italian) written in the past 50 years about ancient Christian views of reincarnation” or “about Christ’s descent to hell” or about “Origen’s understanding of universal salvation” etc.   I then use those bibliographies as a *starting* point for my work – I read what’s on them and use them to build up even bigger bibliographies (since I can’t trust that even my very fine graduate students have found everything).

The other task is I’ll have them do is read articles and books and write summaries of them.  Usually I’ll tell them I want a one-page single-spaced summary of an article, or a two-page summary of a book.   I let them choose which articles/books from my bibliography they want to do.   This is a fantastic assignment/exercise for them, because it teaches them how to find the core of the argument of an article or book, and to summarize the evidence and logic that the author uses to establish the argument, in a short amount of space.  Terrific for the grad student to acquire these skills.

But I never trust what my graduate students’ summaries tell me.  I use them to decide which books and articles I probably don’t need to bother with myself, and which ones I need to read quickly, and which ones I need to read in depth.   I read everything I need myself, even if I have a summary from a student in hand.

And I myself take notes on everything I read and summarize it, for myself.    If you do this enough, you realize that there are some books and articles that are so important that you have to take copious notes on them, pages of notes.  Others are pretty important but you don’t need to make note of all the play-by-play, because the author is not telling you much that you don’t already know.  Others are not so important, and you can simply say in a few sentences what the book/article is about.  Others are of almost no importance, and you can just write a sentence about what the book/article does.

I do all the above, and I do it the old fashioned way.  I know a lot of scholars/writers use software programs to help them take and organize their reading and notes.  Not me.  Way too much fuss.    One of my few actual skills as a researcher is an inherent sense of how to organize things.   My system is very basic, very simple, and very affective.  I simply take notes on a word processor (the one I’m using this moment to write this blog); I save each file by author’s name and a short title of the book/article; and I put it in an appropriate folder, or subfolder.

And so, for example, I have a folder on the Afterlife.  In it will be subfolders – one for scholarship, one for notes on all the primary texts, one on ideas/thoughts/reflections I’ve had while doing all the research, one on sketches/outlines of how I’m imagining the book will look like, one for the actual chapters I’m writing, and so on.   Each subfolder will have its own sub-subfolders, by topic: but very basic ones.  For example, under “Scholarship,” for this project, I had a sub-subfolder for “Greek and Roman” (meaning scholarship that discussed Greek and Roman views of the afterlife) one for “Jewish and Christian” one for “Near Death Experiences” (since at one point I thought about having a lengthy discussion, maybe an entire chapter on NDE’s in antiquity) and so on.

All these files are searchable, of course, and so it’s very easy for me to locate anything that I need to refresh my memory on in them.  Suppose I seem to remember an article that I read on the church father Origen’s understanding of reincarnation: I just go to “Scholarship/Jewish and Christian” and do a word search for “reincarnation” and boom, I get the file.

I am much better at taking notes on what I read than on remembering everything I read.  And so when I have read just about everything of relevance for a book, my next step is to read through every single note I’ve taken on every single thing I’ve read, and decide then how to structure the book, what to include, what to exclude, how much depth to go into each thing, how to structure it, and so on and on.

Whatever the final product looks like, I have my hundreds of notes on everything I’ve read (primary texts; scholarship) for perpetuity.   Over time, that adds to a lot of scholarship, all available to me.

I consider this aspect of writing a book the real grind.  Some people (my wife) relish the reading part of writing.  For me it’s hard work.   As I look back on a project, the only part I genuinely relish is having it finished!


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Comments

  1. craig@corbettlaw.org  September 23, 2018

    Thanks for this post. Very informative on your thorough , logical and mechanical approach.

  2. fishician  September 23, 2018

    Bit of a tangent, but relates to how people come to believe in the spirit world: it seems that many ancient religions (and some modern ones) used psychoactive substances to achieve a “spiritual” state (opium, hashish, kava, peyote, mushrooms, etc.). Have you read much on this subject or ever thought of posting about it? There are those who think there are stories related to drug trips in the BIble, like the burning bush episode, Ezekiel’s vivid images, etc. I think 1 Samuel 19:18-24 sounds like a drug party, I mean, laying around all day naked while “prophesying?” The use of drugs is one way to explain how people came to think there was a spiritual side of existence.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      I’ve only read Oliver Sacks on Hallucinations, though I understand the new Michael Pollan book is amazing. But there’s almost no evidence that ancient people had access to the kinds of things people use today. John Allegro wrote a book on Jesus and his followers using hallucinegenic mushrooms, but, well, the book never gained any traction….

    • talmoore
      talmoore  September 24, 2018

      It was very common for ancient prophets to go into “ecstasy” before getting their visions or whatnot. There were any number of ways for them to go into this state. For example, the Pythia at Delphi supposedly inhaled some kind of smoke or vapor, which made her go into convulsions. It was also common for the priests of various gods to get intoxicated off the incense that they burned in their temples. For instance, one of the plants burned in the Temple of Jerusalem, called kanah bosem in Hebrew and Canaanite, may have been what the Greeks would call cannabis, i.e. marijuana. The Phoenicians (i.e. the Canannites) could have brought that plant to the Greeks, who called it cannabis, thus making it part of the smoke that induced the state of ecstasy. Anyway, clearly some form of intoxication or pharmacological aid was used in the ritual that brought about the “vision”.

      • fishician  September 25, 2018

        Yes, I’ve read the ideas about “qaneh besem” used in the tabernacle oil recipe possibly being cannabis. It would explain why the priests thought they were experiencing God in the tabernacle, and why only priests were allowed to use it!

  3. rburos  September 23, 2018

    “I am much better at taking notes on what I read than on remembering everything I read. And so when I have read just about everything of relevance for a book, my next step is to read through every single note I’ve taken on every single thing I’ve read. . .”

    You have no idea how this little addition to your post makes me feel better about myself. I write my notes by hand, and the rereading of them is 1) absolutely essential because I forget stuff, and 2) pure joy because I’m reliving the pure essence of my previous reading. It’s watching your presentations and debates that makes me feel you have the mind of a steel trap and that my own inability to remember all the details is so, well, crap.

    For those that haven’t read your textbook, your suggested readings at the end of every chapter are very helpful in getting us to start our own reading lists.

  4. stokerslodge  September 23, 2018

    Bart, I hope you won’t mind me asking a totally unrelated question: At the beginning of the Christian Era – how many books of the Hebrew Old Testament did the Greek Septuagint translation contain?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 24, 2018

      It appears that there was not a *single* Greek translation; when we speak of “the” Septuagint we’re using the term loosely. Eventually the Greek Bible included all 39 books plus extras, now known as the “apocrypha” (such books as 1 and 2 Maccabees, Judith, Tobit, Sirach, etc.). Maybe I should post on all these!

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  September 24, 2018

        I just want to add my thanks for all the knowledge you give us. It is not only clear and interesting but far-ranging as well.

      • Duke12  September 25, 2018

        Please do! The Greek Orthodox Church has it’s own name for those “extras”: they’re called “The Old Testament” :-). Wisdom of Solomon, for instance, gets read a lot at Vespers services commemorating particular saints, especially 4:7-15

  5. Chris_Hansen
    Chris_Hansen  September 23, 2018

    Interesting! I’ve actually been wondering what your process was for this. My process (which has worked decently for my Book of Job project), starts by getting lists of scholars who have done work on the subject in question, compile a list of all their works, and then I go through and read all of them and summarize, similar to you. I have to say though, the research and reading parts are my favorites. I absolutely adore reading what scholars have to say, one reason that I absolutely relish reading your books (what is funny is that the hardcore technical reading is what really appeals to me, so your book Forgery and Counterforgery is one of my favorites of your’s).

    I can’t wait for the new book!

  6. paul.wright  September 24, 2018

    My comment is about what appears to be a grammatical error. It’s not because I delight in finding other people’s errors (I make plenty of those myself) but because of how well it “works.” In the tenth paragraph, talking about your note-taking system, you say: “My system is very basic, very simple, and very affective.” I assume your system is also effective, but it’s nice to think that it is also affective – that it brings you joy. (And I hope it rarely brings anxiety, depression, or anger.)

    I very much enjoy your blog. Thanks for doing it.

  7. bensonian  September 24, 2018

    Thank you for going into such great detail about how your do this. Hopefully, this will inspire others to put more energy into research and to do so in a repeatable fashion.

  8. Sixtus  September 24, 2018

    If there is any chapter-length subject that ends up getting cut or trimmed for some reason (you mention ancient NDEs) how about finishing the chapter, posting it as supplementary material here AND mentioning the posting in the book itself. This will both satisfy our Ehrman addiction and help drive people to the blog, perhaps even to join.

  9. RonaldTaska  September 25, 2018

    Absolutely amazing system!

  10. coffeemachtspass  September 26, 2018

    Thanks, Bart. Your system reminds me a little of the book that helped get me through grad school: How to Read a Book. The author was Mortimer Adler. He gave common-sense tips on reading books at a variety of ‘levels’ for better comprehension. Producing a paragraph as a summary of an author’s argument was a technique that Adler recommended also. Did you ever come across this book?

  11. Loring  October 10, 2018

    I’m a little behind in my blog reading, so I just saw this one. But I wanted to say that I found it very interesting. As an academic librarian who teaches research skills–and a former seminarian–it was enjoyable to hear how you conduct and record your research. I’m not sure where I got the phrase (created? or co-opted?), but I describe to students your process of using citations as leads to more sources as “Citation Seed Growing.” Thanks!

  12. TheologyMaven  October 11, 2018

    I just saw this also. I was wondering if “a bibliography of every book and article (in English, French, German, and Italian) written in the past 50 years about ancient Christian views of reincarnation” was a real example. If so, might the graduate student have that posted somewhere or be otherwise interested in sharing? That is one of my own areas of interest.

    Once the book is out, it seems like this background material might be made available somewhere, perhaps on your website, as reference material.

    Sidenote: it always seemed sad to me that so many graduate student papers seemed so interesting, and yet there is no place for them to go and be retrieved by other students and scholars and practitioners.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      Actaully, that would be a very short bibliography. But it would not be hard to assemble.

      The grad student papers that are of publishable quality typically do get published! (Almost every scholar looks back later on their graduate student essays and thinks that they are very glad indeed they didn’t try to publish them!)

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