Zettelkasten Forum

How do you approach learning from textbooks with the zettelkasten method?

I have my head wrapped around taking notes from your typical nonfiction books and feeding them into my zettelkasten. I'm not sure though what is the best way to take notes from a textbook if you are learning a topic for the very first time (psychology 101, history 101, neuroscience 101, etc.)?

If you were to be incredibly systematic with it, I imagine it'd take an incredibly long time because they tend to be information dense. So what level of note-taking is the right one? At the most abstract, you could reduce the textbook down to a paragraph summary. You could reduce it down into a set of notes based on the key concept of each chapter. Or you could be extremely detailed and create a note for every concept you come across. The advantage of that is it might help you see how everything is connected and you have a large set of notes to hook new notes from. The disadvantage would be that it is an incredible time sink and that a lot of the concepts aren't worth having notes on because you will internalize them as you do with common words.


  • You could start with just the few concepts that are both complex and meaningful to you. There is not much sense trying to capture everything that is simple and readily assimilated into your mind. There may be other concepts that you don't care to capture in your ZK, even though you might have to learn them for an exam. I would use some other learning method for those. My perspective on a ZK is that it should contain ideas that we want to capture for the long term and that fit into our sense of what is important and worth capturing. I know that is a little vague. To start, you may want to err on the side of capturing too little rather than too much; you can always add more ideas later, but it is really difficult to cull notes from a ZK, or even if you don't, you might waste a lot of time including notes that never get used or to which you never refer again. Depends on how much time you have to waste, I guess; sounds like you don't have a lot of "spare time".

  • @GeoEng51 said:
    There is not much sense trying to capture everything that is simple and readily assimilated into your mind

    I'd like to weaken this statement: take a very simple and common-sensical term like "bread". There's not much point to create a note about it unless you're a cook, one might think. But once you have a note about the term, you can structure all your knowledge about recipes, the history, link to how to distinguish it from cakes and why Marie-Antoinette wasn't very popular back in her days. For a life-long system for creative knowledge work, things like that have decades to grow and become more and more interesting.

    I liken this to my notes on gardening tips I gather here and there; lists of edible and also beautiful plants; and eventually how to rotate crops. Capturing "squash" doesn't sound useful at first, but in the context of self-sustained living, a squash-related note becomes more useful and interconnected.

    Granted, not every term in existence needs a representation in one's Zettelkasten. But depending on the interest, capturing even the most basic things can be useful in the long run because you have a representation of that thing in your knowledge web and can give it additional food for growth.

    So that's a pragmatic reason: if you capture it, you can let it grow; if you don't capture it, it's not part of your web of knowledge.

    Now for foundational concepts, I believe there's merit in at least considering to capture them all. Not just from the glossary of a single text-book, but from multiple sources. Figuring out what "morals" means and why it's considered to be something else than "ethics" inside philosophy is a task that takes quite some time on it's own. Armed with definitions and distinctions that you can understand because you worked on them for so long, you have ample material to write productively once you get around to produce essays or papers.

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

  • On the subject of foundational concepts, or in this case philosophical anti-foundations, I cannot resist the suggestion to refer to this article in your Zettelkasten: Against moral philosophy.

    GitHub. Erdős #2. CC BY-SA 4.0. Problems worthy of attack / prove their worth by hitting back. -- Piet Hein.

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