on-going mostly unedited stream of thoughts

experimenting with Obsidian

Books have radically changed my life. One of the original purposes of this website was to share the learnings I had from them – read through my personal lenses, layered with the sentiments from my psyche. I’ve only written a few of such reviews since this incarnation of this website existed. It takes too much mental effort to sift through hundreds of highlights I’ve made, excavate my feelings and thoughts about them, and make meaningful sense of them in an accessible manner. I can only do short sittings of writing because of my chronic health issues, and I don’t seem to have the mental stamina and focus required to sustain the sort of thinking needed to write such posts.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the things I want to accomplish before my life ends, and it always comes back to making meaningful connections in my learnings, experiences and personal development. What makes a person? I’ve always wondered that about other people – how did they become who they are? It is probably not possible to uncover the actual truth: reality is too complex and it is difficult to see where did those balls start rolling to create that cascading effects that is essentially our personalities. But I thought it would at least be interesting to try to document my journey, and so much of my journey involves books.

I thought it would perhaps be easier if I could design a system and a workflow to process these books. I am a person who is all over the place, my writing is process tends to be intuitive and spontaneous. But I know that I cannot rely on intuition and spontaneity to do complex writing. This has always been my achilles heel in terms of learning. I absorb information like a sponge – again intuitively – when I am deeply interested in something, but I am useless when it comes to learning something that requires actual studying – breaking down a complex topic into digestible chunks so they can be retrieved easier.

I thought to myself, why not pick up the skills of studying at age 42? I joke. I guess I have a long list of things I thought I couldn’t do because of my “personality flaws” or some impaired neurological wiring but I slowly learnt to do them over the years, so I thought perhaps it is time I try to tackle this one thing.

personal knowledge management systems

I need a place where I can sync all my book highlights easily, write notes on them, make connections between them, and retrieve them easily. Of course one could use apple notes or a plain notebook to store notes, but the magic of it all lies in the ability to see how topics and notes have relationships to one another. A linear/chronological based note-taking app would not be able to do that. In recent years a bunch of software has attempted to be the answer. One of the pioneers is Roam Research, which I have experimented with before. I actually did quite a bit on it, but it didn’t manage to sustain. I don’t think it is a software issue per se. I think Roam is probably still very powerful, but I keep having these visions of losing my precious notes because Roam is primarily a web app: the notes is stored in their proprietary format and there is no simple backup solution that you can port over to somewhere else. Hosting our data on these centralised platforms is a risk as we can now see from twitter.

why Obsidian

Then I’ve downloaded Obsidian quite a while ago, but never touched it because I preferred Roam and found Obsidian difficult to use. But I decided to give it another spin a couple of days back. I like that it stores our data in markdown files hosted locally, and that it has a thriving community. It can sync across devices using icloud and its (paid) native sync. Having a mobile app is nifty in the scenario my eyes grow tired from looking at the larger laptop screen, which happens all the time. But I am still not sure how much I’ll actually use it on mobile.

I am still learning how to use it, so I am not sure if I’ll actually end up using it properly. But I thought I’ll share my basic set up in case someone else was just as confused as me.

my basic setup of Obsidian

customising its appearance

This is how Obsidian looks like by default:

screenshot of obsidian's default styling

I have found the typography to be not optimal for my personal reading preferences: the bullet points are too close together, I prefer a serif font, etc. So I installed the most popular theme, Minimal (settings > appearance > themes):

screenshot of Obsidian's theme: minimal

It was too low contrast for me. I wasted a lot of time trying to write my own custom css. If only I had read the official documentation for Minimal, I would have known there was a companion plugin, “Minimal Theme Settings” for further customisation. There are different colour schemes and various other settings that can be selected through this.

We can also install “Style Settings”, another community plugin to further customise the Minimal theme. If the minimal theme is enabled, there will be a plethora of options available:

screenshot of style settings in obsidian

I chose to enable “highlight active line”, and changed the active line background so when I select a block in Obsidian, the block is highlighted with a background colour change:

screenshot of active line highlight in obsidian

There is an option under Style Settings to increase the vertical spacing between bullet points but I wanted more, so I added my own customisation via Settings > Appearance > CSS snippets (click the little folder icon, it will open the folder which we can drop our css file in. There is an entire list of css variables that can be overridden.

body {
  --list-marker-color: #C126C5 !important;
  --list-spacing:0.5em !important;

I think the theme’s variables will always be prioritised, so I had to include “!important” if I wanted to override the theme’s styling. However this is not necessary if you prefer to write your own css without enabling a theme. There is even an inspector built in if you want to check out what styles and variables are in use.

Then, I changed the default text font to “Palatino” because I prefer to read serif (Settings > Appearance > Text font). Finally, I enabled stacked tabs so I can have multiple panes side by side. All in, I ended up with this:

screenshot of my customised obsidian

…which is still a little slipshod but I didn’t want to spend too much time on it for now. I mean, I could spend days on this.

plugins I currently use

Apart from the plugins for theming I mentioned, I also use:

  • Readwise Official: to sync my highlights from my books. Each highlight also includes a hyperlink that opens its location in the Kindle app.
  • Copy Block Link: This is so I can embed blocks within my notes. Basically it allows me to embed a piece of text from one note into another note. All embedded blocks have a link back to the origin – the idea is we can embed quotes in different places and they will always lead us back to the original source so we don’t have to keep doing a text search. In traditional note-taking software, I can only copy and paste a quote into a note.
animated gif demonstrating the obsidian plugin: copy block link

There are more plugins I would like to try out, like templater and dataview, but haven’t had the chance to explore them yet.


Overall I am impressed with the amount of thought and complexity put into the customisation allowed in Obsidian, how they designed the plugin and theming system etc. It is impressive that this can be achieved with markdown files.

I am not sure if I’ll stick to it though. Though the issue is probably more me than the software, but it helps that it seems to be very capable and powerful. I am also still experimenting with the actual workflow: from scanning through the highlight’s I’ve made, picking out the actual meaningful highlights, making notes off these highlights, connecting the notes into a narrative that I can write into a post. Would a template with some predefined questions help? I’ll have to try it out with a few books and see how it goes.

addendum: youtube videos I’ve found helpful in understanding Obsidian

related posts

on processing books for kindling
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