When I first started trying to read non-fiction books and articles seriously, I was often quite lost. I found that I could not just sit there and read a book and retain the argument with its various details.
Over time, I found that the way that helped me most thoroughly concentrate on a reading, and that produced something with "added value" that allowed me to very quickly review a reading in the future, was to create what I call "map notes". I don't know what the formal methods are for "mind mapping", but this method appears to be close to that (but I honestly haven't ever read books or anything about mind mapping).
There are two ways to make these maps: by "piece" (of writing), or for a field.
You can take what I refer to as "piece notes" (notes for one particular article or chapter of a book) in a notebook or on a tablet. The method is pretty simple. At the top of the notes, you write the title of the article/chapter, the author's name, where it was published (if a journal article), and how many Google Scholar citations it has (to give some idea of its current level of influence). Also, as you go, you number the pages.
Then the goal is to map the MAIN ARGUMENT. You can add some of the details that branch off of the main argument. But the goal is not to obsess about marginal details. The point is to map the main ideas.
I find the mapping technique to be nice because it allows for creativity and also allows you to put a LOT of information on one page.
This is a page from my "piece map notes" of an article by Ezra Zuckerman on the different genres of sociological journal articles. It was taken on A4 sized paper with a few pens.
You can see that a lot of information is there on one page. So it helps to have these notes to quickly review something later.
But what I have been doing more recently is making "field level map notes", which is a bit harder to do on paper or on a tablet. I'm currently taking these notes on a Mac program called "Omnigraffle" (it is basically the Microsoft Viso for Mac). So what I do there is I try to figure out how different authors in the field talk about a particular topic. So I have one, for example, for Relational Sociology. A big topic. But I'm able then to take many authors' writings and put them all on one large page, and see how the ideas relate to each other. So these field level map notes are restrained by the amount of RAM you have, but you can still make pretty enormous field level maps before you run out of RAM (or at least I can running an M1 Mac with 16 GB of RAM).
This is a picture of those field level map notes (I know you can't really see what is said in any of the boxes, but gives you the idea):
For most purposes as an undergraduate or graduate student, piece level map notes should be enough. The field level map notes are only needed (for me anyway) when you're being asked to be an expert on a field (like when you publish a journal article in a particular field) and need to be able to see how different authors relate to each other.
But you could also take many piece level map notes and then later do summary map notes, relating people together. That is what I did for both of my comprehensive exams, which required me to read about 200 books/journal articles each. So in both of those, I took all my notes as "piece map notes", and then took extra synthesis notes where I related different authors together. I also took all those piece map notes on paper, to reduce the amount of distractions when I had such a massive task to do (read those many sources in a short period of time).
Here are some other examples of piece map notes (taken on A4 paper that I cut in half) (and yes, you have to scan them if you take them on paper!):
Here are some piece map notes I took on Matthew Desmond's "Becoming a Firefighter" paper. I take a different approach here and give each paragraph a title. I was trying to figure out how to write an ethnography article here, which is why I took this approach (of mapping the structure of the article at the same time as recording the content of it). The notes are a lot messier when trying to write on an iPad screen!
So some other aspects of what I do come out in the examples.
I put a page number beside anything that is a point made by the author. So that 1) I don't have to go back to the article to check page numbers, and 2) I know what the author said and what I am writing.
My own comments always have a date after them (a day and a time, so that I know how my thoughts progressed during the course of reading something).
I also colour code different things:
Orange: What the author agrees with/their argument/things the author thinks is a good idea
Light red: What the author disagrees with
Black: What the author is neutral about
Green: What I agree with
Dark red: What I disagree with
Blue: What I'm neutral about
Brown: Anything about academic methods. How to write, how to do ethnography etc. Notes I make or that the author makes that are about how to do something, e.g., how to read better etc. You can see this colour when I'm mapping the structure of Desmond's article.
I also highlight or underline the actual text with those colours.
Now, this is NOT the only effective way to read. If you're reading this and have another very effective reading method that is different from this one (and perhaps better!), please let me know and I'd be happy to talk about you writing a guest post on this blog.