Business, Blogging, Getting Stuff Done, learning, Areas of Interest, Tactics

How To Create a Digital Commonplace Book

I am in the process of doing some research for our business and I discovered how to create a digital commonplace book.  It's my new favorite video game.  For an investment of ~$8 a month and five minutes a day you can turn your brain into a giant tag cloud.

Setting up this workflow allows you to visualize all of your Amazon Kindle highlights, articles in Pocket/Instapaper, iBooks highlights, favorite tweets and other snippets of knowledge you may have collected over the years in an ever growing network diagram.

Once you set up your workflow, you can use this tool to identify new connections that you had not previously noticed across authors, books, articles, areas of interest, topics, tweets, fiction, non-fiction... the creative potential here is really endless.  I am having a blast with this and had to share.  

So, over the rest of this post we will cover:

  • What is a commonplace book and why would you want one?
  • How to automate a commonplace book using Kindle, Readwise and Obsidian
  • How to maintain your collection in 5 minutes a day
  • How to visualize your brain in a network diagram
  • What do you do with all of this information

What is a Commonplace Book and Why Would You Want One?

The first time I heard about a commonplace book was from Ryan Holiday, who uses his for his writing.  The purpose of a commonplace book is to create a personalized resource for reference and inspiration. By recording snippets of information, insights, or memorable passages from books, articles, podcasts, or other sources, people can curate their own information treasury.

A commonplace book allows you to collect and synthesize ideas from various sources, identify connections across numerous works (fiction and non-fiction) and identify new, undiscovered connections.

The problem:  like anything of value, this takes time.

Technically, we are Cheating.  The Downside of Automating a Commonplace Book

There are a lot of opinions online that a true commonplace book is constructed slowly, by hand, as a ritual using individual note cards because the learning is all in the diligence and writing.  Some of my favorite authors warn against doing exactly what I am proposing because you skip a major element of the learning process:  writing and thinking.  While I don't disagree with them, I think that this is a way to get off zero and go from no information repository to having something to draw from.

Here is my personal situation...

  • I have known about commonplace books for years.  
  • I love the idea of building a personal information warehouse
  • I have wanted to build a commonplace book for years and have started one
  • It hasn't grown at the rate that I would like
  • My reality: I have too many competing priorities right now to do this the right way.  

My conclusion - Automating the process skips a major learning benefit, but automating this process still has a ton of value. So automate I did....

How to Automate A Commonplace Book

In order to automate the system, you need three applications:  Kindle, Readwise and Obsidian.

Kindle and Obsidian are free applications but Readwise is not.  You will need to set up a premium subscription with Readwise to make this work.

Using readwise you connect your reading applications (Kindle, Pocket, Instapaper, iBooks, Twitter, etc.) as inputs.  Readwise does all of the processing by showing you small snippets of things you have highlighted.  You can add tags and notes any time.  Then using the Readwise plugin in Obsidian, you send all of the content that has been organized in Readwise over to obsidian for the visualization step.

This is what the process looks like:

What is Readwise?

Readwise is the key ingredient in this witches brew... It integrates with and ties together reading platforms, such as Kindle, Instapaper, Pocket and Twitter.  Readwise automates the collection of highlights and notes across other reading apps.  As Readwise collects your notes, you can set up short, daily review sessions where your highlights are displayed.

What is Obsidian?

Obsidian is a note-taking and knowledge management application similar to Evernote or Notion.  It is designed for people who want to organize and connect their ideas, notes, and information in a structured manner and present the connections visually in a dynamic graph view.

How To Maintain Your Collection in 5 Minutes a Day

Once you have the workflow set up you can start exporting.  However, if you  are just getting started Obsidian will have a limited amount of information to work with.  Depending on your highlighting history, it may be able to asscociate books, articles, authors and colors that you used to highlight content.

To really get this working you want to create a list of tags based upon your areas of focus.  The more broad and diverse the topics, the better.  Now, when you run your Readwise daily review you will start applying those tags to the Kindle highlights that Readwise shows you.

For me, the best part of this process is seeing highlights from books that I read years ago and identifying that a tag from a current interest applies.  By tagging the highlight, Readwise signals Obsidian to make a new connection in the network diagram.

How To Visualize Your Brain in a Network Diagram

So, at this point you have the workflow set up and are going through daily reviews, being reminded of your Kindle highlights and applying tags.  Readwise is organizing the data.  Install Obsidian and follow these instructions to see how to connect Readwise to Obsidian to visualize your data in a network diagram:

What do You Do With This Information?

Why is this cool?  Innovation and problem solving is often the result of an idea existing in one network and then being applied in another network or area where it is unknown.  Mapping all of your Kindle highlights into a network diagram visually displays connections that you can "mine" when you are trying to solve a problem.   I have just started doing this and I keep getting surprised when I see connections that I had not considered.

To wrap this post up... the photo below is a snapshot of my personal graph as of this writing (20 May 2023)...  But it grows a little every day because a) I tend to do most of my reading in Kindle and I highlight and take notes of passages I find meaningful and b) I have a five minute Readwise review/tag daily routine.  By simply doing these two things the map is automatically updated and I can refer back (or add any number of other notes) anytime I want.

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