Improving my Reading System and Leveraging Obsidian

I’ve been working on building my book library and keeping up with my reading habits for years. My process for that has been evolving, and it’s one that I’m moving from Evernote to Obsidian.

My needs:

  • To keep track of what books I own (it has happened that I purchased a book I already owned);
  • To know the formats I own, such as printed, ebook, audiobook. Sometimes I’m listening to an audiobook and realize a printed copy would be better. Sometimes I finish reading a book and want to listen to it to revisit the content;
  • To know what books I’m reading, have read, or that are in my to-read list;
  • To know what books I’ve read in the current year, so I can put together my “Favorite Books I’ve Read in…” blog posts;
  • To know what books I’ve read more than once. Sometimes people ask me for my favorite books, and I want to give them a better informed answer, instead of just relying on what comes to mind first;
  • To know what books are the most recommended to me. It can be through a direct recommendation from friends or co-workers, or maybe through a recommendation found in a book or author I’m enjoying;
  • To find my own notes on the book

This post outlines how I’m now handling all of that. I’m always refining things, but this should describe the core pieces and the direction I’m going. At the bottom of this post you’ll find some resources I’ve used to learn how to put this together.

Tracking recommendations

When I get a book recommendation, I go to Obsidian and invoke the plugin to create a new book note:

The plugin has me type either the book’s name or ISBN. It shows me a list of what it found, I select the one I’m looking for, and complete the operation, which creates a note for me, like so:

I’ve split the window so we can see the markdown down created for the note on the left and the rendered version on the right.

That initial content comes from a template, which I got from the plugin and tweaked to my liking, including the following fields to the metadata you see at the top:

  • status: unread/reading/read
  • formats: ebook/paperback/audiobook
  • recommendations: names and/or places I got the recommendations from
  • finished: the dates when I finished reading the book

I then created a note that uses the Dataview plugin to query my notes and display the results:

The window is split to show the results on the left and the query on the right. Some non-public names are blurried.

The results let me answer the following question: what books have I not ready yet that has more than one recommendation?

Capturing my notes on a book

I take notes on books I’m reading. Whether it’s an ebook or printed book, I highlight passages and write on the book. If it’s an audiobook, I write notes using pen and paper (I actually use a reMarkable, but I’ll save that for another post).

Once I’m done with the book, I review my notes and highlights and consolidate them into that book note I created in Obsidian. My notes include quotes, images, links out to other notes or resources, my own thoughts, etc.

The image above shows my notes on a book on the left and the graph view on the right, which lets me see the connections I have associated with that book.

Tracking books I’ve read or am reading in a given year

As part of my annual review process, I’ve been looking over the books I’ve finished reading in that year and selecting my favorite ones. I put that list out as a blog post, such as this one for 2021. The following note helps me do such reflection:

Again, results on the left, query on the right.

The results include the years when I finished the book; it makes easy for me to see what books I’ve read more than once. Why? Two reasons:

  • When people ask me for book recommendations or my favorite books, I have a better informed answer (instead of just relying on memory);
  • When I see the years when I’ve read a given book, I can draw connections between that and other books or things I had going on around those times

At the bottom of that list (not shown in the capture above), I see a list of books I’m currently reading, which I use when I want to drop in and add a few notes even befor I’m done reading the book.

Listing all books

The simplest query I have is one that lists all books I’ve added:

On that list I can see:

  • All books
  • Their status, cover, and title
  • Recommendations
  • Formats. This one is interesting: if I see a book that’s “unread” and has any kind of format (e.g., ebook), that means I’ve already purchased the book but haven’t read it yet. Also, if I see one like that and it has no recommendations, it just means I’ve heard or seen the book somewhere and want to read it.

About Dataview queries

If you’ve been paying close attention to the queries I’ve shown, you may have noticed the use of two different types of syntax. The reason is the following: for the most simple queries (such as the one to list all books), I use the the standard dataview query; for the queries that need a little more tweaking, I use the dataview javascript API, which provides more granular access to the metadata I’ve added to the notes.

Resources

These are the resources I’ve used to learn how to put together the system outlined in this post.

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