Why I built Oxity.com

leafing through book

I have to start this post with the truth: I really didn’t want to build this software. That might sound strange, but it’s true. The site that you’re looking at right now only came about out of sheer frustration.

You see, for a long time I’ve taken book notes. I’ve been underlining, highlighting, and dog-earing pages. I’ve been indulging in marginalia, idle doodling, and furious scribbling. I’ve been collecting anecdotes, providing analysis, and pulling out my favourite quotes.

At first, these notes and highlights just used to languish inside the books, only to be re-read if I were to leaf back through the book at a later date, which turned out to happen hardly ever. Not very useful then.

After this, I progressed to copying down the really important parts – by hand – into whatever writing pad I had nearby. Sometimes I’d just jot it down on a sheet of A4 and tuck it inside the cover of the book. Other times I’d write stuff down on sticky notes and then promptly lose them.

Then, remembering it was the twenty-first century, I started to take the notes using Word. That certainly helped with the losing it part. But, just typing like a lunatic into a Word document, unable to keep any kind of tight structure or relate-ability to the books from where they came, was just that: lunacy. It was messy as hell. Word is fantastic for long-form writing, but note-taking is beyond its remit.

Fine. So Word was a no-go. Next up was Evernote after a recommendation.

Evernote

Ahhh this was much better. I could create a whole new notebook for each book that I had read, and enter all my book notes separately with their own title. I could even tag the individual notes, and the search function is great. But Evernote’s limitations soon became apparent.*

Firstly, it’s impossible to associate all the information of a book with each and every note. So I had to create a separate note with all the book information, and then try and not lose it in the notebook. And remember how I titled it. And then to remember to title this note the same across all books. Then there’s the fact that you can only have a maximum of 250 notebooks in Evernote. As one Evernote notebook translated to one real hard-copy book, it’s easy to see how this might be a problem – especially if you read as much as I do. And lastly, mixing all my personal notebooks and notes in the same account was just messy and confusing.

The Notecard System

It was after about a year of working like this that I first stumbled onto the work of Ryan Holiday in the form of his superb stoicism bestseller, The Obstacle is the Way. I was ambling through his blog shortly after when I came across a post titled: The Notecard System: The Key For Remembering, Organizing, And Using Everything You Read. If ever a post title has stood out for me…

This system provided a lot of the structure I was so desperately looking for. Notes can be sorted into categories, you can start to pull out themes across the books you read and associate them with one another. Notes are colour coded to help with organisation. There are no limits on how many notes you can take.

However, as happy as I was, to find this system, there are still  few problems with it. Firstly, it’s a manual system that requires you to write out your notes by hand onto notecards, and to file them away in boxes (Holiday argues that writing out notes by hand forces him to take his time, and can also pick up the cards and arrange them around when planning to write a book).

Nevertheless, I gave it a go. And it works great from an organisational standpoint. But there are still big problems when it comes to searching and actually accessing your notes. With Evernote it was great to have my anecdotes to hand no matter where I was in the world – with physical notecards you can’t cart a load of boxes around with you very easily. I was also running into the problem of misplacing the cards, and I was constantly worried about losing them through damage. (Holiday had his home burgled once and spoke of his fear of the notes being taken…)

My solution

So what I needed was something with the structure and organisational wizardry of the Notecard System, but with the convenience, security, and power of Evernote. I desperately tried to find a preexisting solution – because why bother going to all the effort of building something when a better solution already exists? But I couldn’t find anything.

And so here we are. I’m writing this post at the end of a few months of blood, sweat, and tears that I expended in my spare time during evenings and weekends. I’ve tried to add just the right amount of features at the beginning to cover everything that might be needed to take great book notes.

The organisational structure is based on the Notecard System, so you can categorise notes with tags, for instance, but with a couple of extra features. Because each note is tightly associated with a book, it means that you can generate citations at the click of a button, for each of your notes. Delightful.

One feature that I love is the ability to cross-reference one note directly with any other note in your library. So many times I’d come across a conflicting anecdote in two books, or a nuanced idea covered two different ways by different authors. Well with Oxity, you can keep track of those ideas and themes at a way more granular level that just tagging all your notes under a blanket category.

I’ve also built a search feature, you can automatically import book data from the Google Books database, you can add attachments to you notes (great for providing extra context or storing photos, diagrams, or illustrations from textbooks), and there’s a powerful text editor that allows you to take rich notes. I’ve tried my utmost to make it as easy to use as possible. There’s nothing worse than software that gets in your way. You can check out all the features here.

Oh and one other thing: It’s free.

So whilst I built this app for myself, I’d love it if it also became useful for you. Give it a go and let me know what you think.

You can sign up  here.

*I just have to say at this point that the limitations I talk of are just around the application of book notes. I love Evernote, and I’d be lost without it – half my life is stored inside it. I give them money every month for a Premium membership. This very blog post was written in Evernote.