Lifestyles of the Note Takers & Intellectuals: Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov famously wrote most of his works including Lolita using index cards in a slip box.

The slipbox and index cards on which Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita.
The slipbox and index cards on which Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novel Lolita.

He ultimately died in 1977 leaving an unfinished manuscript in note card form for the novel The Original of Laura. Penguin later published the incomplete novel with in 2012 with the subtitle A Novel in Fragments. Unlike most manuscripts written or typewritten on larger paper, this one came in the form of 138 index cards. Penguin’s published version recreated these cards in full-color reproductions including the smudges, scribbles, scrawlings, strikeouts, and annotations in English, French, and Russian. Perforated, one could tear the cards out of the book and reorganize in any way they saw fit or even potentially add their own cards to finish the novel that Nabokov couldn’t.

Index card with hand drawn table of ages and measurements
Index card on which Nabokov collated notes on ages, heights, and measurements for school aged girls as research for his title character Lolita. (via Library of Congress

More details at: https://www.openculture.com/2014/02/the-notecards-on-which-vladimir-nabokov-wrote-lolita.html

Annotated Pivoting with Hypothesis during Covid by Christine MoskellChristine Moskell (Hypothesis | OLC Innovate 2020 | YouTube)

Kicking off OLC Innovate 2020, Hypothesis held two free workshop sessions on collaborative annotation with members of AnnotatED. The sessions each started with a "Getting on the same page" introduction from Jeremy Dean of Hypotheses, followed by "Notes from the field", where a variety of AnnotatED community members talked about what's happening with collaborative annotation at their schools and participants had the chance to discuss ideas and questions with these experienced practitioners.

In this clip Christine Moskell, Instructional Designer at Colgate University, shares examples of how instructors used Hypothesis during the Covid pivot. 

Christine Moskell talks about a professor’s final exam design prompting students to go back to annotations and add new commentary (or links to other related knowledge) that they’ve gained during the length of a course.

This is very similar to the sort of sensemaking and interlinking of information that Sönke Ahrens outlines in his book How to Take Smart Notes though his broader note taking thesis goes a few additional steps for more broadly synthesizing ideas into longer papers, articles, theses, and books.

Dr. Moskell also outlined a similar tactic at the Hypothesis Social Learning Summit: Spotlight on Social Reading & Social Annotation earlier today, though that video may not be accessible for a bit.

How can we better center and model these educational practices in our pedagogies?

Annotated The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp and Mark ReiterTwyla Tharp and Mark Reiter (Simon & Schuster)

She puts the ideas together and tries to broker a deal for the conglomerate to acquire a radio network. At the end, she’s challenged to describe how she came up with the plan for the acquisition. It’s a telling scene. She has just been fired. On her way out of the building, with all her files and personal items packed in a box (a box just like mine!), she gets a chance to explain her thought process to the mogul:

See? This is Forbes. It’s just your basic article about how you were looking to expand into broadcasting. Right? Okay now. The same day—I’ll never forget this—I’m reading Page Six of the New York Post and there’s this item on Bobby Stein, the radio talk show guy who does all those gross jokes about Ethiopia and the Betty Ford Center. Well, anyway, he’s hosting this charity auction that night. Real bluebloods and won’t that be funny? Now I turn the page to Suzy who does the society stuff and there’s this picture of your daughter—see, nice picture—and she’s helping to organize the charity ball. So I started to think: Trask, Radio, Trask, Radio.... So now here we are.

He’s impressed and hires her on the spot. Forget the fairy-tale plot; as a demonstration of how to link A to B and come up with C, Working Girl is a primer in the art of scratching. 

The plot twist at the end of Working Girl (Twentieth Century Fox, 1988) turns on Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) explaining her stroke of combinatorial creativity in coming up with a business pitch. Because she had juxtaposed several disparate ideas from the New York Post several pages from each other in a creative way, she got the job and Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) is left embarrassed because she can’t explain how she came up with a complicated combination of ideas.

Tess McGill (portrayed by a big 80's haired Melanie Griffith) packing a brown banker's box with her office items and papers leaving her office and her job.
A Working Girl’s Zettelkasten

Tess McGill has slips of newspaper with ideas on them and a physical box to put them in.

slips with ideas + box = zettelkasten

Bonus points because she links her ideas, right?!

Reframing and simplifying the idea of how to keep a Zettelkasten

Given many of the misconceptions I see online of how to keep a zettelkasten, particularly given the focus on the arcane addressing system used by Niklas Luhmann, perhaps it may be helpful to dramatically reframe the question of how to keep a zettelkasten? One page blog posts from people who’ve only recently seen the idea and are synopsizing it without a year or more practice themselves are highly confusing at best. Can I write something we don’t see enough of in spaces relating to zettelkasten? Perhaps we should briefly consider the intellectual predecessor of the slip box?

(Editor’s note: I’m using content within my own “slip box” to write this.)

Start out by forgetting zettelkasten exist. Instead read about what a commonplace book is and how that (simpler) form of note taking works. This short article outlined as a class assignment is a fascinating way to start and has some illustrative examples: https://www.academia.edu/35101285/Creating_a_Commonplace_Book_CPB_. If you’re a writer, researcher, or journalist, perhaps Steven Johnson’s perspective may be interesting to you instead: https://stevenberlinjohnson.com/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book-639b16c4f3bb

The general idea is to collect interesting passages, quotes, and ideas as you read. Keep them in a notebook and call it your commonplace book. If you like call these your “fleeting notes” as some do.

As you do this, start building an index of subject headings for your ideas, perhaps using John Locke’s method (see this for some history and a synopsis: https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/john-lockes-method-for-common-place-books-1685).

Once you’ve got this, you’ve really mastered the majority of what a zettelkasten is and have a powerful tool at your disposal. If you feel it’s useful to you, you can add a few more tools and variations to your set up.

Next instead of keeping the ideas in a notebook, put them on index cards so that they’re easier to sort through, move around, and re-arrange. This particularly useful if you want to use them to create an outline of your ideas for writing something with them. Once you’ve got index cards (slips) with ideas on them in a box, you now literally meet the minimum requirements of a zettelkasten (German for “slip box”, though in practice many will have their ideas in a metaphorical slip box using a digital note taking tool.

Next, maybe keep some index cards that have the references and bibliographies from which your excerpting and note taking comes from. Link these bibliographical cards to the cards with your content.

As you go through your notes, ideas, and excerpts, maybe you want to further refine them? Write them out in your own words. Improve their clarity, so that when you go to re-use them, you can simply “excerpt” material you’ve already written for yourself and you’re not plagiarizing others. You can call these improved notes, as some do either “permanent notes” or “evergreen notes”.

Perhaps you’re looking for more creativity, serendipity, and organic surprise in your system? Next you can link individual notes together. In a paper system you can do this by following one note with another or writing addresses on each card and using that addressing system to link them, but in a digital environment you can link one note to many multiple others that are related. If you’re not sure where to start here, look back to your subject headings and pull out cards related to broad categories. Some things will obviously fit more closely than others, so be more selective and only link ideas that are more intimately connected than just the subject heading you’ve used.

Now when you want to write or create something new on a particular topic, ask your slip box a question and attempt to answer it by consulting your index. Find cards related to the topic, pull out those and place them in a useful order to create an outline perhaps using the cross links that already exist. (You’ve done that linking work as you went, so why not use it to make things easier now?) Copy the contents into a document and begin editing.

Beyond the first few steps, you’re really just creating additional complexity to a system to increase the combinatorial complexity of juxtaposed ideas that you could potentially pull back out of your system for writing more interesting text and generating new ideas. Some people may neither want nor need this sort of complexity in their working lives. If you don’t need it, then just keep a simple commonplace book (or commonplace card file) to remind you of the interesting ideas and inspirations you’ve seen and could potentially reuse throughout your life.

The benefit of this method is that beyond creating your index, you’ll always have something useful even if you abandon things later on and quit refining it. If you do go all the way, concentrate on writing out just two short solid ideas every day (Luhmann averaged about 6 per day and Roland Barthes averaged 1 and change). Do it until you have between 500 and 1000 cards (based on some surveys and anecdotal evidence), and you should begin seeing some serendipitous and intriguing results as you use your system for your writing.

We should acknowledge that that (visual) artists and musicians might also keep commonplaces and zettelkasten. As an example, Eminem keeps a zettelkasten, though he calls his “stacking ammo”, but it is so minimal that it is literally just a box and slips of paper with no apparent organization beyond this. If this fits your style and you don’t get any value out of having cards with locators like 3a4b/65m1, then don’t do that (for you) useless make-work. Make sure your system is working for you and you’re not working for your system.

Sadly, it’s generally difficult to find a single blog post that can accurately define what a zettelkasten is, how it’s structured, how it works, and why one would want one much less what one should expect from it. Sönke Ahrens does a reasonably good job, but his explanation is an entire book. Hopefully this distillation will get you moving in a positive direction for having a useful daily practice, but without an excessive amount of work and perhaps a bit less cognitive dissonance. Once you’ve been at it a while, then start looking at Ahrens and others to refine things for your personal preferences and creative needs.

Creating a commonplace book or zettelkasten index from Hypothes.is tags

I thought it might be useful to have a relatively complete list of cross linked topical headings in my digital notebook (currently Obsidian) which is a mélange of wiki, zettelkasten, journal, project management tool, notebook, and productivity tool. First, let’s be honest that mélange is too poetic based on what I see of how others use Obsidian and similar tools. My version is structured to have very clear delineations between these forms even though I’m using the same tool for various functions.

I find that indexed subject headings can be useful for creating links between my wiki-like pages as well as links between atomic ideas in my digital zettelkasten. Gradually as one’s zettelkasten becomes larger and one works with it more, it becomes easier to recall individual ideas and cross link them. Until this happens or for smaller zettelkasten it can be useful to cross reference subject headings from one zettel to see what those link to and use those as a way to potential create links to other zettels. This method can also be used as a search/discovery aide for connecting edge ideas in new areas to pre-existing portions of one’s zettelkasten as well. Of course at massive scale with decades of work, I suspect this index will have increased value as well.

I don’t hear people talking about these types of indices for their zettelkasten in any of the influencer spaces or on social media. Are people simply skipping this valuable tool? For those enamored of Niklas Luhmann, we should mention that having and maintaining a subject index was a powerful portion of his system, even if the digitized version of his zettelkasten hasn’t yet been fully digitized. I haven’t seen the whole collection myself, but based on the condition of some of the cards in his index, Luhmann heavily used his subject index. (Note to self: I wonder what his whole system would look like in Obsidian?) Having a general key word/subject heading/topic heading index of all the material in one’s system can be very useful for general search and discovery as well. This is one of the reasons that John Locke wrote about a system for indexing one’s commonplace book in 1685. His work here is likely the distal reason Luhmann had one in his system.

Systems that have graphical knowledge graphs may make this process easier as one can look from one zettel out one or two levels to see where those link to.

Since such a large swath of my note taking practice starts by using Hypothes.is as my tool of choice, I’m able to leverage several years of using it to my benefit. Within it I’ve got 9,314 annotations, highlights, and bookmarks tagged with over 3,326 subject headings as of this writing.

To get all my subject heading tags, I used Jon Udell’s excellent facet tool to go to the tag editing interface. There I entered a “max” number larger than my total number of annotations and left the “tag” field empty to have it return the entire list of my tags. I was then able to edit a few of them to concatenate duplicates, fix misspellings, and remove some spurious tags.

An alternate way of doing this is to use a method described in this GitHub issue which shows how to get the tags out of local storage in your web browser. Your mileage may vary though if you use Hypothes.is in multiple browsers, which I do.

I moved this list from the tag editor into a spreadsheet software to massage the list a bit, clean up any character encodings, and then spit out a list of [[wikilinked]] index keywords. I then cut and pasted it into my notebook and threw in some alphabetical headings so that I could more easily jump around the list.

Now I’ve got an excellent tool and interface for more easily searching and browsing the various areas of my multi-purpose digital notebook.

I’m sure there are other methods within various tools of doing this, including searching all files and cutting and pasting those into a page, though in my case this doesn’t capture non-existing files. One might also try a search for a regex phrase like: /(?:(?:(?:<([^ ]+)(?:.*)>)\[\[(?:<\/\1>))|(?:\[\[))(?:(?:(?:<([^ ]+)(?:.*)>)(.+?)(?:<\/\2>))|(.+?))(?:(?:(?:<([^ ]+)(?:.*)>)\]\](?:<\/\5>))|(?:\]\]))/ (found here) or something as simple as /\[\[.*\]\]/ though in my case they don’t quite return what I really want or need.

I’ll likely keep using more local search and discovery, but perhaps having a centralized store of subject headings will offer some more interesting affordances for search and browsing?

Have you created an index for your system? How did you do it?

Annotated Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto EcoUmberto Eco (Secker & Warburg)
No piece of information is superior to any other. Power lies in having them all on file and then finding the connections. There are always connections; you have only to want to find them.
If you’re not sure how to start the first card in your zettelkasten, simply write this quote down on an index card, put a number in the corner, and go…

 

 

Tiago, I’ve started into an advanced copy of your forthcoming book and at the end of the introduction you have a footnote:

Other popular terms for such a system include Zettelkasten (meaning “slipbox” in German, coined by influential sociologist Niklas Luhmann), Memex (a word invented by American inventor Vannevar Bush), and digital garden (named by popular online creator Anne-Laure Le Cunff)

Please know that the zettelkasten and its traditions existed prior to Niklas Luhmann. He neither invented them nor coined their name. It’s a commonly repeated myth on the internet that he did and there’s ample evidence of their extensive use prior to his well known example. I’ve documented some brief history on Wikipedia to this effect should you need it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zettelkasten

The earliest concept of a digital garden stems from Mark Bernstein’s essay Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas in 1998. This torch was picked up by academic Mike Caulfield in a 2015 keynote/article The Garden and The Stream: A Technopastoral.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s first mention of “digital garden” was on April 21, 2020

Which occurred just after Maggie Appleton’s mention on 2020-04-15

And several days after Justin Tadlock’s article on 2020-04-17 

Before this there was Joel Hooks by at least 2020-02-04 , though he had been thinking about it in late 2019.

He was predated by Tom Critchlow on 2018-10-18 who credits Mike Caulfield’s article from 2015-10-17 as an influence.

Archive.org has versions of the phrase going back into the early 2000’s: https://web.archive.org/web/*/%22digital%20garden%22

Hopefully you’re able to make the edits prior to publication, or at least in an available errata.

Replied to As I continue reading and sometimes re-posting ... by Jeremy CherfasJeremy Cherfas (Jeremy Cherfas)
As I continue reading and sometimes re-posting things written on this day, I've decided to do one more thing at the end of a session: go to a random site in the IndieWeb WebRing. Today, I found something that resonates down the years: how to organise the content of a weblog.
These are fascinating questions, though looking at them from various perspectives and imagined audiences over time scales makes them more intriguing. 

Most often we privilege the chronological time order because that’s how we ourselves live them, write them, and how much of our audience experiences them.

But consider looking at someone’s note collections or zettelkasten after they’re gone? One wouldn’t necessarily read them in physical order or even attempt to recreate them into time-based order. Instead they’d find an interesting topical heading, delve in and start following links around.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of “card index (or zettelkasten) as autobiography” for a bit now, though I’m yet to come to any final conclusions. (References and examples see also: https://hypothes.is/users/chrisaldrich?q=%22card+index+as+autobiography%22). 

I’ve also been looking at Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project which is based on a chunk of his (unfinished) zettelkasten notes which editors have gone through and published as books. There were many paths an editor could have taken to write such a book, and many of them that Benjamin himself may not have taken, but there it is at the end of the day, a book ostensibly similar to what Benjamin would have written because there it is in his own writing in his card index.

After his death, editors excerpted 330 index cards of Roland Barthes’ collection of 12,000+ about his reactions to the passing of his mother and published them in book form as a perceived “diary”. What if someone were to do this with your Tweets or status updates after your death?

Does this perspective change your ideas on time ordering, taxonomies, etc. and how people will think about what we wrote? 

I’ll come back perhaps after I’ve read Barthes’ The Death of the Author


Also in reply to: 

Replied to Note-taking: A Research Roundup by Jennifer GonzalezJennifer Gonzalez (Cult of Pedagogy)
A summary of 8 best practices in note-taking, straight from the research.
It’s been a few years since this was originally posted and there have been some interesting developments in note taking apps and software which have been shifting some of the focus in the space. The primary change is the popularization of the German idea of the Zettelkasten which grew out of the commonplace book tradition from antiquity and the early Renaissance.

The most detailed form of the idea can be found in Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes, which also looks closely at much of the note taking and psychology related research over the past several decades. While he frames the method in terms of writing and creation as the end goal, much of the method dovetails with Bloom’s Taxonomy as I’ve outlined. It could also be framed as Cornell Notes with a greater focus on atomic notes that are highly linked and thereby integrating a student’s new knowledge with their prior knowledge.

I’d love to see more educators scaffolding the use of this note taking tool in their classes, especially in high school and undergraduate education.

Cross reference: https://boffosocko.com/tag/note-taking/

The Zettelkasten Method of Note Taking Mirrors Most of the Levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy

Between zettels (the space where new ideas often occur) this morning I realized that there is a high correlation to Bloom’s Taxonomy and the refined methods of keeping a zettelkasten, particularly as delineated by Dr. Sönke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes. As a result, even if one’s primary goal isn’t writing or creating as framed by Ahrens’, the use of the system as a pedagogical tool can be highly effective for a variety of learning environments.

Recall briefly that Bloom’s Taxonomy levels can be summarized as: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.

Outlining the similarities

One needs to be able to generally understand an idea(s) to be able to write it down clearly in one’s own words. This is parallel to creating literature notes as one reads. Gaps in one’s understanding will be readily apparent when one realizes that they’re not able to explain an idea simply and clearly.

Regular work within a zettelkasten helps to reinforce memory of ideas for understanding, long term retention, and the ability to easily remember them. Many forms of zettelkasten software have functionality for direct spaced repetition if not dovetails for spaced repetition software like Anki or Mnemosyne.

Applying the knowledge to other situations happens almost naturally with the combinatorial creativity that occurs within a zettelkasten. Raymundus Llullus would be highly jealous here I think.

Analysis is heavily encouraged as one takes new information and actively links it to prior knowledge and ideas; this is also concurrent with the application of knowledge.

Being able to compare and contrast two ideas on separate cards is also part of the analysis portions of Bloom’s taxonomy which also leads into the evaluation phase. Is one idea better than another? How do they dovetail? How might they create new knowledge? Juxtaposed ideas cry out for evaluation.

Finally, as argued by Ahrens, one of the most important reasons for keeping a zettelkasten is to use it to generate or create new ideas and thoughts and then use the zettelkasten as a tool to synthesize them in articles, books, or other media in a clear and justified manner. 

Other examples?

I’m curious to hear if any educators have used the zettelkasten framing specifically for scaffolding the learning process for their students? There are some seeds of this in the social annotation space with tools like Diigo and Hypothes.is, but has anyone specifically brought the framing into their classes?

I’ve seen a few examples of people thinking in this direction and even @CalHistorian specifically framing things this way, but I’m curious to hear about other actual experiences in the field. 

The history of the recommendation and use of commonplace books in education is long and rich (Erasmus, Melanchthon, Agricola, et al.), until it began disappearing in the early 20th century. I’ve seen a few modern teachers suggesting commonplaces, but have yet to run across others suggesting zettelkasten until Ahrens’ book, which isn’t yet widespread, at least in the English speaking world. And even in Ahrens’ case, his framing is geared specifically to writing more so than general learning and education.

Featured image courtesy of Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (CC BY 2.0