Back in 2021, I got the sudden urge to ditch paper notebooks and investigate the world of digital note taking tablets. I am a prodigious note taker, and at work I had a tower of used notebooks which was not just an affront to Nature (literally, with all that paper), but something my company would frown upon as I work in the healthcare sector and keeping those things around was a HIPPA violation waiting to happen. I had an iPad, but being a “jack of all trades” device, it was easy to get distracted while using it. I was, at the time, a regular Instagram scroller, and I was frequently seeing ads for the reMarkable 2 eInk tablet. I figured “what the hell” and ordered one. It instantly became my one-and-only note taking solution…until I lost it. I don’t know if I accidentally threw it away when I was cleaning out my work desk of all of the notebooks (the desk was covered with stuff, most of which ended up in the trash, vindicating the environmental lobby) or if I had accidentally left it on my desk at work and had it stolen. Regardless, I have never been so despondent over losing tech; I don’t think I’d ever lost tech, really, but for some reason this cut real deep. I tried to make up for it by evaluating several iPad replacements, and I even shelled out for a Kindle Scribe (which is a really good eInk tablet), but after having experienced the reMarkable’s non-opinionated approach to note-taking, I couldn’t summon the appropriate level of Stockholm Syndrome to consider myself satisfied with Amazon’s foray into the market. Since I had a few options under my belt at that point, I summoned the courage to approach my wife to tell her that Best Buy had the reMarkable 2 available for pick-up in under an hour. She asked if I really missed my tablet and I did not lie. I cannot overstate how silly I feel admitting that I really fucking missed my tablet. So I got the green light.
It’s kind of weird. When I had the original reMarkable 2, I used it religiously. Very religiously (not for religion, just all the time). After losing it, and with the options I had at my disposal, I shifted back to Notion, and then Obsidian, both of which are keyboard-and-mouse solutions which have tablet editions, but which are really focused on keyboard input. Now that I have the reMarkable again, I have been long-handing it when I would have otherwise cracked open Obsidian.
What’s the Difference?
When I was in primary/middle/junior/high school, I took notes in a rather scattershot way. I’d mix bullet points, lists, “important high-level concepts” notes, and even graphs and hand-drawn images during lectures and lessons. When I got to college, though, everything changed. I switched to fucking prose, writing my notes like a goddamn textbook. Everything was paragraph based (with tasteful illustrations where applicable). Considering this was mainly hardcore science classes, this did me very well for some reason. I adopted my current writing style during college, for better or worse, and I accept that it put me on a path towards not just memorable and easy to read notes, but also blogging and the occasional fiction.
In the tech age, though, relying on the keyboard really altered things for me. I can type significantly faster than I can write — and my penmanship is atrocious, let me tell you, on account of how fast I write. I used OneNote religiously for a while because I liked it’s free-form nature. When I got my first gen iPad and was able to use the not-Jobs-sanctioned stylus to hand-write my notes, I was able to merge my college style prose notes with my newfound love of tech notes into an even harder to read format. Seriously, even I have trouble reading my own handwriting. It wasn’t until the world of wikis got wise to the idea that there’s no shame in having word-processor-level tools in a Markdown world that I made the jump from handwriting to typing. It wasn’t a troublesome leap since I’ve been abusing the English language in electronic form since the late 90’s when I first started blogging.
Notion worked exceedingly well not just because of it’s super-simple formatting but because of it’s database focused underlayer which allowed for many different formats within the same document. This was as close to hand-written note-taking as I had encountered thus far; the ability to mix formats in a single file, a single document was stupidly powerful. I could keep my usual long-form notes, and create a Kanban board for projects in the same binder. Magical!
Then came the Fall of Twitter, and what started as a begrudging acceptance of open source turned into a reevaluation of priorities and a blossoming partnership. I adopted the stance that I didn’t want to be beholden to Notion where my data was concerned, and I started re-writing my gigabytes of notes in Obsidian, an app which puts a friendly face on Markdown. While it’s a chore to make my content available Everywhere(tm), I like the fact that Obsidian’s functionality relies not only on the community’s plugins, but allows us all to tailor the app to our requirements by installing or skipping those plugins.
Having taken notes long-hand, and have taken notes using the long form via Notion and Obsidian, I cannot say I prefer one over the other.
As for the long form options, like blogging, I enjoy how consideration of every letter forces me to adopt a voice. I am not a skilled wordsmith by any stretch, but like to think I do OK; maybe my style is better suited to longer forms that bore people with blog posts, but such is life. As for long-hand options, I like the immediacy of forming letters, then words, then thoughts that require effort to correct; it requires more forethought because I hate having to erase and repeat myself (if for no other reason than to repeat myself correctly).
Room for Two
Today I have been Doing Work which has required a lot of note-taking. Since acquiring the second reMarkable, I have been leaning on it hard. It’s beyond justification for having bought the device. It’s almost pathological how much I want to use it.
The problem, though, is the way I am using it. If you thought my blog posts were bad, you should see my notes. Each page is an abrupt change in my stream of consciousness. Even when the overarching topic is the same, I jump around so much as to make my future self want to slap my past self for not having used Obsidian, where it’s much easier to organize and re-organize.
I feel that I am not taking the best advantage of the features that the reMarkable offers, like notebooks, folders, and more importantly, tags. I have to figure a way to properly index my thoughts, as I cannot currently refer to any of my notes when I need to find information on a specific subject; I can page though a notebook and hope I added a descriptive header, but barring that, I’m more or less resigned to re-reading the entire thing until I find the section which has the info I am looking for.
I suspect the answer lies between long-hand and long-form. The reMarkable, Scribe, or iPad options allow me to throw down thoughts in an almost artistic way. I can enjoy the sweep of each letter under the command of my stylus, which may or may not aid in the release of creative thoughts. Once I have the first pass ideas in writing, I am able to revise them in another medium through another platform like Obsidian. If it wasn’t obvious before, I am not good at editing my writing; I’m more of a “fire and forget” kind of guy. The double-barreled approach of handwriting and typing notes may actually result in a much better knowledge store for me, as it covers both the from-the-hip style which I usually adopt and the more thoughtful reconsideration that the slower form of banging on keys affords.