Creating a Personal Book Index

May 2, 2016
Joe Buhlig
~2 mins

I used to just pick up a book, start at the beginning, and read it to the end. I tried not to bend any pages and always used a bookmark to make sure the book still looked brand new when I was finished. I had an unwarranted fear of ruining my books because I held them in such high regard.

I think that does the author an injustice. Yes, we’re reading the book. But are we doing anything with what we’re reading? Are we thoroughly comprehending it and engaging with the content? For me, the answer to those was “No”. Sure, I would learn a few things, but most of the time I found myself skimming the whole thing trying to find a section with the solution I was looking for or an aha moment to teach me something new.

After reading this way for a long time I eventually started underlining or highlighting passages I found interesting or inspiring. That was a big step for me. But those words, despite having an impact on me, would eventually be lost. I might remember reading something in a specific book and then go back and look for it but this rarely happened.

While reading my latest books I started creating my own index of these highlights at the prompting of Tim Ferris and Maria Popova. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it or not, but I can now say that being able to glance at the back of a book to see the location of these important passages makes it a much better experience and well worth the extra seconds it takes to create it.

What I’m doing is simple. When I underline or highlight some text, I go to the back of the book where there are always a couple blank pages, create a topic heading or find one that already exists, and I add the page number of the text I just underlined. Done.

When I’m finished reading the book, I do my best to write a quick overview for myself in a text file. As part of that process, I transcribe this book index into a digital format at the bottom of the review. This makes it possible to search for topics and see the books I’ve read that pertained to that topic. It also allows me to see what pages in the book pertain to that topic.

The searching piece is just icing on the cake, though. To me the real joy is having that personalized index at the back of the book to thumb through. I know that if there’s something that struck me in the book, I can always get back to it quickly and easily.