3 ways to get at your Kindle highlights

I’m reading more on my Kindle these days. This is for many reasons, not least of which is that it is difficult to manoeuvre both a hefty hardback and a ballooning baby at the same time. I can just about handle the Kindle instead.

I wasn’t always an inveterate note-taker—notably during my school days when it would have helped enormously—but I’m trying to get into the habit. Previously, when reading my Kindle, for too long I was passively highlighting passages of books I read, unlikely to come back to them, or if I did, unlikely to understand why I highlighted it or what that ? meant—disagreement? lack of understanding? a once-pertinent question for the author?

As it happens, Alan Jacobs wrote about this in the excellent The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction:

The more heavily you annotate a text—the more questions you ask and comments you venture—the more often you disrupt the continuity of reading.

Writing out the whole of your question is better than just flinging a question mark onto the page, because doing the former takes more time—it gets you out of the flow of mere passive reception—and because it forces you to articulate the precise nature of your vexation. A mere question mark could indicate confusion, disagreement, a feeling of lacking information—any one of a dozen things. When you write out your question you render the discomfort exactly.

So by reading actively—that is, highlighting and marking up and taking extra notes and asking questions—you disrupt the continuity of reading more often, the more thought goes into it, and the more likely you are to digest and remember what you have read. So I’m doing it more often.


Still, we can’t all remember everything, no matter how actively we read.

Here are 3 tools you can use to export and resurface your Kindle notes and highlights. They all work by accessing your kindle.amazon.com page. In increasing order of power and complexity:

1. Bookcision

The bookmarklet yields a single page of cleanly styled highlights, which can then be copied to one’s clipboard and pasted into a local text repository (OneNote, Evernote, DevonThink, etc.)

Chrome users will additionally be offered the ability to dowload the highlights in plain text, JSON, or XML formats.

2. Readwise

A browser extension that syncs your highlights and sends you a regular email resurfacing them. I use and like this a lot! (They’ve launched a web app version which they are currently pushing.)

3. Clippings.io

A Chrome extension that powers a more feature-rich version of something like Bookcision. Notes and highlights are synced to the ‘app’, where you can perform some additional organisation such as tagging. You can export individual or multiple highlights, adhering to different referencing styles.

There’s a tiny monthly charge, but I’m pleased about this—I’d always rather pay for things I find useful, as there’s then less chance they’ll disappear overnight.


I use Clippings.io to transfer my highlights and notes to my archiving/information storage app of choice and get an every-other-day email from Readwise. Using both services I have an easily searchable database of highlights, the ability to see contextual links between my highlights and other documents (a feature of DEVONthink), and get serendipitous reminders of them in my email inbox.

In fact, simply publishing some these highlights with some extra context, questions, elaboration etc would form the basis of an intriguing blog, if you don’t have one already…

How to keep a reading journal

Sarah Ditum:

I don’t really – not really-really – know anything until I’ve copied it out, by hand, with pen and paper. Note-taking helps me to memorise the most useful, interesting, beautiful or aggravating parts of a book. It also means that whenever I want to retrieve a reference from something I’ve read, I can find it in my notebook. Not marked with a torn-up train ticket and then replaced on a bookshelf but I’ve forgotten which bookshelf, or given to a charity shop in the hopeful belief I’d never need to think about it again; but in my notebook, with a page number, marked on the contents page.

Ditum goes on to describe her method and tools. See also this post about keeping a journal and collecting.

How social media broke our democracy

Mike Caulfield:

I could not sleep last night at all. So I organized my notes I’ve been taking over the last year on the problem of doing politics in distributed feed-based systems.

I know this election was about so much more than that (so much more), and our problems are so much deeper. But I remain convinced that even if social media is not the fire or the fuel of Breitbartian racism it is in fact the oxygen that helps it thrive and spread.

There are 537 pages of notes in this PDF, and it may not be immediately clear what each has to do with the book, but in my head at least they all relate. They are worth a read.

[pdf]

Wow—this is fantastic, and exactly what I was getting at in my earlier post about indiscriminate collecting. I’ve started using DEVONthink to collect and organise my notes and web clippings. I hope to get to a point where I have a similar collection. Not only does it help my understanding of concepts, but it enables me to make unexpected connections between them.

Charles Paget Wade Before Snowshill

My pal Paul Capewell wrote a booklet on the artist, architect and collector Charles Paget Wade. Aside from wanting to read the booklet, I was caught by this paragraph in Paul’s post:

So I took some time off to get the words down. Fortunately, and partly as I was writing in chronological order, it flowed smoothly. It turns out that if you do the slow, painstaking work of collecting quotes, dates, examples and context beforehand, one’s brain actually does a pretty good job of condensing it all into a readable format.

I’m reminded of Rachel Leow’s great 2008 post Only Collect:

Only Collect; that is to say, collect everything, indiscriminately. You’re five years old. Don’t presume too much to know what’s important and what isn’t. Photocopy journal articles, photograph archives; create bibliographies, buy books; make notes on every article or book you read, even if it’s just one line saying “Never read this again”; collect newspaper clippings and email them to yourself; collect quotes; save your ideas for future papers, future projects, future conferences, even if they seem wildly implausible now. Hoarding must become instinctual, it must be an uncontrollable, primal urge. And the higher, civilizing impulse that kicks in after the fact is organization, or librarianship. You must keep tabs on everything you collect, somehow; a system must be had, and the system must be idiot-proof. That is to say, you should be able to look back on it six months for now and not be completely stymied as to why you’ve organized things that way. (The present versions of ourselves are invariably the biggest idiots, and six months will make that clear).

Steven Johnson has written about his writing process several times over the past decade. He’s an indiscriminate collector too, and he uses software (specifically DEVONthink) to organise it and reveal unexpected connections, which help direct his books and articles:

For the past three years, I’ve been using tools comparable to the new ones hitting the market, so I have extensive firsthand experience with the way the software changes the creative process. (I have used a custom-designed application, created by the programmer Maciej Ceglowski at the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education, and now use an off-the-shelf program called DEVONthink.) The raw material the software relies on is an archive of my writings and notes, plus a few thousand choice quotes from books I have read over the past decade: an archive, in other words, of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me.

Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster. Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.

What does this mean in practice? Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.