Archive for category Obsidian

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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Gradually Complementing/Replacing Evernote with Obsidian

The first “personal information manager” I’ve used was Lotus Organizer in the mid 90s. Then there was Microsoft Schedule+, later replaced by Microsoft Outlook, which I stopped using as my personal tool in 2010 or so.

I had a Palm OS around 2000 which I used mostly for note taking. Then a Microsoft Pocket PC in 2003, I think, which I hoped it’d integrate with Microsoft OneNote, which I used for some time.

Then I got into Onfolio (which allowed downloading webpages, organizing them into collections, and building my own knowledge store). A nice little tool that vanished without further notice shortly after getting acquired.

Other than OneNote, all of those things disappeared in a matter of just a few years.

ALL
of them. In just a FEW years.

How can we trust technology when it goes out like that? But I digress…

In 2009, I heard of Evernote, when they were still in Beta. I gave it a try and have been using it since then. Being able to use the same tool seamlessly on a PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad: that’s what got me hooked immediately. I’ve put out many blog posts on how I’ve been using it.

I always keep an eye out for different ways to improve my process and systems. Up until 2020, I haven’t found any reason to replace Evernote with anything else. Compared to the options above, this tool has had a very long and stable run for me. Kudos to them.

Their first version was implemented in WPF, which they’ve learned wasn’t the best choice for their product, and so they rewrote the entire software from scratch after a while. As a consumer of their tool, I remember switching between the two versions going painlessly. As far as I remember, they reached feature parity quickly (at least for the features I used extensively at the time).

But then in 2020 comes another full rewrite: as I understand, they had a different codebase for each operating system they supported (PC, OS, iOS, Android…), which was very hard to keep up with (adding features, fixing bugs…). So this time they went with ElectronJS.

I got into the beta program to try out the new version. I use the tool all day long, on a PC, on a Mac, and on my iPhone. Within a month I had to go back to the previous version, not because of the expected stability issues of a beta version, but because of the large number of missing features I’ve been relying on for several years.

To mention a few of those features:

  • Lack of support for tabs. Here’s one of my use cases for it.
  • Lack of multi-window support (I can open notes in separate windows, but I can’t have multiple Evernote windows)

As someone who works with 3 computer screens most of the day, being able to use those screens effectively is a must, and a tool that doesn’t let me run multiple windows severely impacts that need.

Evernote “Legacy”: multiple windows and tabs

I’ve reported to them all of the use cases and reasons why I was falling back to their “legacy” version, at least on my Mac, which is where I use the tool the most. I’ve kept using the latest version on my PC so I could stay updated on their progress. As I saw their comments about which features we could be expecting soon, and the lack of information on most of the features I was interested in, I figured I should start looking for alternatives.

With so many people swearing by Notion, I looked into it. Didn’t like it.

At a Virtual Brown Bag earlier this year, I heard of Obsidian. It looked interesting, so I noted I should look into it. A few months later, I start hearing good things about it from people whose opinion I trust. So I decided to spend more time on it. I’m liking it.

I’m gradually learning more about the tool. It doesn’t seem to fit all of my use cases yet. But it does work really well for some of them.

For some things, I’ve either completely moved over or started to move parts of it. For example, keeping track of my book reading or how to decide what book to read next, and building and maintaining my book library. Also, keeping track of quotes that inspire me.

I’m not in a hurry. I’m not desparate to use the flashy new toy. And I do see me using the different tools for different parts of my system.

Obsidian has one of the same issues that the Electron-based version of Evernote does: lack of multi-screen support. The latest version added an option to open/move a note into a separate window, but it currently doesn’t work well on the PC and Mac. It seems fine when the windows are showing on the same screen, but it gets really funky when I move the new windows to another screen.

Obsidian: Multiple windows and panes on a single screen

Looking at where Evernote has been putting their effort for the last 2 years and the direction they’re going, and where Obsidian is going with their community plugins and all, I’ll keep working at my gradual transition between the two tools.

I’ll put out separate posts talking about specific use cases.

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