Zettelkasten Forum


Extracting ideas from texts, my epiphany

Some time ago @sfast said something along the lines of focusing on the ideas a book tries to convey and that these would naturally go into his Zettelkasten just as any other ideas. Back then I used the approach of collecting Luhmann-style notes ("on page X the author says Y") in Zotero and only moved my own commentary into the Zettelkasten. As simple as Sascha's statement was, i didn't grok it.

The last two weeks I read So good they can't ignore you from Cal Newport and really wanted to understand the approach he describes in his book. I could see early on, that he was describing some kind of model that I could visualize with a mind map and so I took to pen and paper after reading the book and created a mind map from my highlights. As the mind map formed, I realized I could translate it easily into a structure note and linked atomic notes in my Zettelkasten. And then Eureka! I finally saw the value in Sascha's statement.

Thinking more about it, I figured that reading is not so much about "reading words and sentences" but reading is about reverse engineering the ideas in the author's mind. I am still not sure this applies across the board to all non-fiction texts but it is a big revelation for me, anyways.

I am super excited and thankful to Sascha for placing that little bug in my mind. ;)

Comments

  • edited July 3

    I think you put it very nicely, especially because one of the biggest problems with processing texts is to not simply duplicate a text's structure.

    One trick I found works well in order to get to the ideas is to look for definitions, differentiations, examples and explanations in a text. Duplicating those is much more valuable than duplicating the text (be it as an outline or any other distilled version of this).* This is not yet the same as extracting the ideas, but it is already much closer. Working on those things and linking them together will give you a feel for what relates to what and how it does so - this helps to make the ideas more extractable.

    * Terms and conditions apply. Sometimes you might need the general structure of a text.

    Post edited by matti on
  • @nistude said:
    The last two weeks I read So good they can't ignore you from Cal Newport and really wanted to understand the approach he describes in his book. I could see early on, that he was describing some kind of model that I could visualize with a mind map and so I took to pen and paper after reading the book and created a mind map from my highlights. As the mind map formed, I realized I could translate it easily into a structure note and linked atomic notes in my Zettelkasten. And then Eureka! I finally saw the value in Sascha's statement.

    I love how you've expressed the correlation between dIgesting an author's ideas using a mindmap and a structure note with atomized ideas. I'm embarrassed to share that my structure notes so far have been linear digestions - chapter 1 then chapter 2 ... - while I've linked relevant atomized notes during this process some, it feels like sometimes connections are lost as this process is a bit random and not well thought out. I can see where having a mindmap showing connections between atomized ideas at the start would aid (sometimes greatly) the intake, the onboarding, absorbing, attaining the knowledge osmosis strived for when initially tackling a text.

    Eureka! It's hard to describe these epiphanies but something in your phrasing struck me just right. Yes, and thank you, @sfast.

    Cal Newport is doing the hard work of spreading the word about attention distraction. So good they can't ignore you is a great book.

    Thinking more about it, I figured that reading is not so much about "reading words and sentences" but reading is about reverse engineering the ideas in the author's mind. I am still not sure this applies across the board to all non-fiction texts but it is a big revelation for me, anyways.

    I love your notion of "reverse engineering the ideas in the author's mind". This is a noble goal. One I'm going to work with more. I'll practice first with shorter texts. You're right I think, this probably wouldn't apply to all text but we might be surprised where is mindset could be gainfully applied.

    I am super excited and thankful to Sascha for placing that little bug in my mind. ;)

    Thanks for sharing your ideas here. I too am "super excited" I'm getting better at this by striving to be 1% better than before. Then, 1% more. Thanks for the kick.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • I try to do something similar. Having read a text, I create an idea index:

    I then map the ideas out separately in a notebook. These mapped nodes then serve as jumping off points for individual zettels.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • @nistude said:

    The last two weeks I read So good they can't ignore you from Cal Newport and really wanted to understand the approach he describes in his book. I could see early on, that he was describing some kind of model that I could visualize with a mind map and so I took to pen and paper after reading the book and created a mind map from my highlights. As the mind map formed, I realized I could translate it easily into a structure note and linked atomic notes in my Zettelkasten. And then Eureka! I finally saw the value in Sascha's statement.

    What a great book! Thanks for the reference - something I believe in and it's satisfying to see someone has put the ideas into print. I'm going to pass it onto a grandchild who is graduating from high school this year - very timely.

    I like the concept of mind-mapping the contents of the book as well - a perfect way to see connections between Zettels. Makes me think that I should try a mind-mapping exercise with Zettels already in my ZK to discover new connections.

    @Phil said:
    I try to do something similar. Having read a text, I create an idea index

    I then map the ideas out separately in a notebook. These mapped nodes then serve as jumping-off points for individual zettels.

    The figures illustrate what you do perfectly and are richly informative - thank you! I've got a lot of pages that look like your first one at the back of several bullet journals, produced for the same reason as I "took notes" on various books I was reading. Your post gives some excellent bridge ideas to include previous learnings in my ZK.

  • @Phil said:
    I try to do something similar. Having read a text, I create an [idea index].

    I love thinking and talking about the reading workflow.

    Phil great example. This looks like it some of your work with David Loy's Ecodharma?

    Thanks for putting a name to this process. Creating an "idea index" seems a way to focus on the ideas and not the fluff. It wouldn't matter if the index initially was in a list format, an outline format, or a mindmap format. I love the idea of creating an "idea index" as related to a text by hand in a separate notebook. Then processing into my Zettelkasten from there.

    Do you find the extra time to think about and create an index of ideas is counterbalanced by the time integrating with you Zettelkasten?

    Using a separate notebook will be important for me as I read mostly library books and on the Kindle which is abysmal for typing. I read on the go a lot making technology sometimes tough. Interesting following the link you provide to Cal's Blog about Maria Popova's habit of using the blank pages a the end of a book for her "idea index". Lots of helpful discussions.

    I can see how by following this advice the note would almost write themselves. Maybe we'll see.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited July 6

    @Will said:

    Do you find the extra time to think about and create an index of ideas is counterbalanced by the time integrating with you Zettelkasten?

    One of the things I've realized in the course of my ZK odyssey is that there are no shortcuts. So while I'd like to say yes in answer to your question, unfortunately I can't. I went through a period of time where I wrote my zettels direct from the idea index. This involved a heavy cognitive load as I switched between texts (source, idea index, zettels). So now I write out the zettels long hand right after I've read a book/article and created an idea index. I use 5x8 notecards which are just big enough to let me flesh out an idea but small enough to force me to be concise. These function as first-draft zettels.

    The pomodoro (25 minutes) is my basic unit of 'deep work' time, and I track how long all of this takes. Here's an example (using Ronald E. Purser's McMindfulness, which I'd say is a moderately difficult book):

    • Reading the book: 10
    • Creating an idea index and writing lit notes: 7
    • Writing zettels in TA: 28
    • Total: 45 (18 3/4 hours)

    This seems to hold up across books of the same type, although my record (for a dense and theoretically heavy book) was 70+ pomodoros just on the zetteling!

    So . . . no shortcuts!

    P.S. And @Will, the example you asked about is from Ron Purser's McMindfulness.

    Started ZK 4.2018. "The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on."

  • This is cool, thanks for sharing the data, @Phil! Measuring time spent in work intervals is a great idea to get a feeling for this. -- I don't use a Pomodoro timer when I read, so it'ss kinda hard to gauge my own time spent on a book, but now I'm curious ... :)

    Author at Zettelkasten.de • https://christiantietze.de/

  • @Phil said:
    One of the things I've realized in the course of my ZK odyssey is that there are no shortcuts. So while I'd like to say yes in answer to your question, unfortunately I can't. I went through a period of time where I wrote my zettels direct from the idea index. This involved a heavy cognitive load as I switched between texts (source, idea index, zettels). So now I write out the zettels long hand right after I've read a book/article and created an idea index. I use 5x8 notecards which are just big enough to let me flesh out an idea but small enough to force me to be concise. These function as first-draft zettels.

    Phil, I don't think I'm sad that there aren't some time-efficiencies found in the process of creating an idea index. The time I spend in this personal knowledge project is precious and enlivening. Actually this is one area of my life where I think "more is better". At least better than spending time sitting on a barstool. :smile:

    • Reading the book: 10
    • Creating an idea index and writing lit notes: 7
    • Writing zettels in TA: 28
    • Total: 45 (18 3/4 hours)

    This seems to hold up across books of the same type, although my record (for a dense and theoretically heavy book) was 70+ pomodoros just on the zetteling!

    Your disciple is impressive.

    Using pomodoros is something I've tried in the past be the skill never stuck. I'll try again.

    In my first attempt at this workflow, I'm reading a chapter at a time of David Loy's Ecodharma.

    1. From the intro. I made a rough outline of the author's main ideas in an outline form.
    2. I read each chapter noting and highlighting as usual.
    3. Before continuing on to the next chapter I integrate the notes and highlights into the idea index with the plan to once finished the book, review the idea index, and then create the zettels.

    I'm already seeing where in the past I was chapter focused when creating a structure note and with an idea index I am seeing ideas expressed, reinforced, elaborated on in different chapters and this is helping to connect the author's ideas with mine.

    Thanks, Phil for sharing this workflow. I can see where I can try to reduce the gaps in my thinking around these topics.

    Will Simpson
    I'm a Zettelnant.
    Research: Rationalism, Zen, Non-fiction Creative Writing
    kestrelcreek.com

  • edited July 6

    I wouldn't necessarily say it is about reverse engineering. But aren't all books forms of communication? You are trying to understand what they want to communicate to you. I don't think you have to "reverse engineer" because the author is straight up telling you the ideas lol.

    I'd say what you are trying to "engineer" or "figure out" instead is the functional model the author uses in the book. The book is just the model fleshed out and explained.

    There are things I think about when reading a book:

    1. Extracting the Model: which is what you are talking about with structure notes. You aren't going to copy paste the whole book. Instead you abstract out the main components of the books. Where the notes will be extensive enough to be useful but not so extensive you are copy pasting the book.

    2. Extracting Individual Ideas: maybe you don't create a structure note out of a book but just take one or two important ideas in a book and add them to existing models you have created in your notes. Usually this is the case when you are reading on topics you are very familiar with already or the book is of poor quality.

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