Zettelkasten Forum

Protagonist discussed his Zettelkasten the novel "Lila: An Inquiry into Morals" by Robert M. Pirsig

Mostly known for "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", Pirsig's second novel "Lila: An Inquiry into Morals" feature the same style of fictionalized philosophical discussions on Quality and life, as well as two scenes where the protagonist discusses what is in all aspects a Zettelkasten. These trays of "slips" have grown organically over the past four years and form the basis of a book that doesn't really have a fixed organization, but make up its own "slip-world".

Long paste was too long so it's here: https://pastebin.com/YFct5hb3


  • He saw that her suitcase had shoved all his trays of slips over to one side of the pilot berth.

    They were for a book he was working on and one of the four long card-catalog-type trays was by an edge where it could fall off. That's all he needed, he thought, about three thousand four-by-six slips of note pad paper all over the floor.

    He got up and adjusted the sliding rest inside each tray so that it was tight against the slips and they couldn't fall out. Then he carefully pushed the trays back into a safer place in the rear of the berth. Then he went back and sat down again.

    It would actually be easier to lose the boat than it would be to lose those slips. There were about eleven thousand of them. They'd grown out of almost four years of organizing and reorganizing and reorganizing so many times he'd become dizzy trying to fit them all together. He'd just about given up.

    Their overall subject he called a 'Metaphysics of Quality,' or sometimes a 'Metaphysics of Value,' or sometimes just 'MOQ' to save time.

    The buildings out there on shore were in one world and these slips were in another. This 'slip-world' was quite a world and he'd almost lost it once because he hadn't written any of it down and incidents came along that had destroyed his memory of it. Now he had reconstructed what seemed like most of it on these slips and he didn't want to lose it again.

    But maybe it was a good thing that he had lost it because now, in the reconstruction of it, all sorts of new material was flooding in - so much that his main task was to get it processed before it log-jammed his head into some kind of a block that he couldn't get out of. Now the main purpose of the slips was not to help him remember anything. It was to help him to forget it. That sounded contradictory but the purpose was to keep his head empty, to put all his ideas of the past four years on that pilot berth where he didn't have to think of them. That was what he wanted.

    There's an old analogy to a cup of tea. If you want to drink new tea you have to get rid of the old tea that's in your cup, otherwise your cup just overflows and you get a wet mess. Your head is like that cup. It has a limited capacity and if you want to learn something about the world you should keep your head empty in order to learn it. It's very easy to spend your whole life swishing old tea around in your cup thinking it's great stuff because you've never really tried anything new, because you could never get it in, because the old stuff prevented its entry because you were so sure the old stuff was so good, because you never really tried anything new ... on and on in an endless circular pattern.

    The reason Phaedrus used slips rather than full-sized sheets of paper is that a card-catalog tray full of slips provides a more random access. When information is organized in small chunks that can be accessed and sequenced at random it becomes much more valuable than when you have to take it in serial form. It's better, for example, to run a post office where the patrons have numbered boxes and can come in to access these boxes any time they please.

    It's worse to have them all come in at a certain time, stand in a queue and get their mail from Joe, who has to sort through everything alphabetically each time and who has rheumatism, is going to retire in a few years, and who doesn't care whether they like waiting or not. When any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is deadly.

    Some of the slips were actually about this topic: random access and Quality. The two are closely related. Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it. A library is one of civilization's most powerful tools precisely because of its card-catalog trays. Without the Dewey Decimal System allowing the number of cards in the main catalog to grow or shrink at any point the whole library would soon grow stale and useless and die.

    And so while those trays certainly didn't have much glamour they nevertheless had the hidden strength of a card catalog. They ensured that by keeping his head empty and keeping sequential formatting to a minimum, no fresh new unexplored idea would be forgotten or shut out. There were no ideological Joes to kill an idea because it didn't fit into what he was already thinking.

  • Because he didn't pre-judge the fittingness of new ideas or try to put them in order but just let them flow in, these ideas sometimes came in so fast he couldn't write them down quickly enough. The subject matter, a whole metaphysics, was so enormous the flow had turned into an avalanche. The slips kept expanding in every direction so that the more he saw the more he saw there was to see. It was like a Venturi effect which pulled ideas into it endlessly, on and on. He saw there were a million things to read, a million leads to follow . . . too much . .. too much .. . and not enough time in one life to get it all together. Snowed under.

    There'd been times when an urge surfaced to take the slips, pile by pile, and file them into the door of the coal stove on top of the glowing charcoal briquets and thenclose the door and listen to the cricking of the metal as they turned into smoke. Then it would all be gone and he would be really free again.

    Except that he wouldn't be free. It would still be there in his mind to do. So he spent most of his time submerged in chaos, knowing that the longer he put off setting into a fixed organization the more difficult it would become. But he felt sure that sooner or later some sort of a format would have to emerge and it would be a better one for his having waited.

    Eventually this belief was justified. Periods started to appear when he just sat there for hours and no slips came in - and this, he saw, was at last the time for organizing. He was pleased to discover that the slips themselves made this organizing much easier. Instead of asking 'Where does this metaphysics of the universe begin?' - which was a virtually impossible question -all he had to do was just hold up two slips and ask, 'Which comes first?' This was easy and he always seemed to get an answer. Then he would take a third slip, compare it with the first one, and ask again, 'Which comes first?' If the new slip came after the first one he compared it with the second. Then he had a three-slip organization. He kept repeating the process with slip after slip.

    Before long he noticed certain categories emerging. The earlier slips began to merge about a common topic and later slips about a different topic. When enough slips merged about a single topic so that he got a feeling it would be permanent he took an index card of the same size as the slips, attached a transparent plastic index tab to it, wrote the name of the topic on a little cardboard insert that came with the tab, put it in the tab, and put the index card together with its related topic slips. The trays on the pilot berth now had about four or five hundred of these tabbed index cards.

    At various times he'd tried all kinds of different things: colored plastic tabs to indicate subtopics and
    sub-subtopics; stars to indicate relative importance; slips split with a line to indicate both emotive and rational aspects of their subject; but all of these had increased rather than decreased confusion and he'd found it clearer to include their information elsewhere.

    It was fascinating to watch this thing grow. No one that he knew had ever written a whole metaphysics before and there were no rules for doing it and no way of predicting how it would progress.

    In addition to the topic categories, five other categories had emerged. Phaedrus felt these were of great importance:

    The first was UNASSIMILATED. This contained new ideas that interrupted what he was doing. They came in on the spur of the moment while he was organizing the other slips or sailing or working on the boat or doing something else that didn't want to be disturbed. Normally your mind says to these ideas, 'Go away, I'm busy,' but that attitude is deadly to Quality. The UNASSIMILATED pile helped solve the problem. He just stuck the slips there on hold until he had the time and desire to get to them.

    The next non-topical category was called PROGRAM. PROGRAM slips were instructions for what to do with the rest of the slips. They kept track of the forest while he was busy thinking about individual trees. With more than ten-thousand trees that kept wanting to expand to one-hundred thousand, the PROGRAM slips were absolutely necessary to keep from getting lost.

    What made them so powerful was that they too were on slips, one slip for each instruction. This meant the PROGRAM slips were random access too and could be changed and resequenced as the need arose without any difficulty. He remembered reading that John Von Neumann, an inventor of the computer, had said the single thing that makes a computer so powerful is that the program is data and can be treated like any other data. That seemed a little obscure when Phaedrus had read it but now it was making sense.

    The next slips were the GRIT slips. These were for days when he woke up in a foul mood and could find nothing but fault everywhere. He knew from experience that if he threw stuff away 15on these days he would regret it later, so instead he satisfied his anger by just describing all the stuff he wanted to destroy and the reasons for destroying it. The GRIT slips would then wait for days or sometimes months for a calmer period when he could make a more dispassionate judgment.

    The next to the last group was the TOUGH category. This contained slips that seemed to say something of importance but didn't fit into any topic he could think of. It prevented getting stuck on some slip whose place might become obvious later on. The final category was JUNK. These were slips that seemed of high value when he wrote them down but which now seemed awful. Sometimes it included duplicates of slips he had forgotten he'd written. These duplicates were thrown away but nothing else was discarded. He'd found over and over again that the junk pile is a working category. Most slips died there but some reincarnated, and some of these reincarnated slips were the most important ones he had.

    Actually, these last two piles, JUNK and TOUGH, were the piles that gave him the most concern. The whole thrust of the organizing effort was to have as few of these as possible. When they appeared he had to fight the tendency to slight them, shove them under the carpet, throw them out the window, belittle them, and forget them. These were the underdogs, the outsiders, the pariahs, the sinners of his system. But the reason he was so concerned about them was that he felt the quality and strength of his entire system of organization depended on how he treated them. If he treated the pariahs well he would have a good system. If he treated them badly he would have a weak one. They could not be allowed to destroy all efforts at rganization but he couldn't allow himself to forget them either. They just stood there, accusing, and he had to listen.

    The hundreds of topics had organized themselves into larger sections, the sections into chapters, and chapters into parts; so that what the slips had organized themselves into finally was the contents of a book; but it was a book whose organization was from the bottom up rather than from the top down. He hadn't started with a master idea and then selected in joe-fashion only those slips that would fit. In this case, 'Joe,' the organizing principle, had been democratically elected by the slips themselves. The JUNK and TOUGH slips didn't participate in this election, and that created an underlying dissatisfaction. But he felt that you can't expect a perfect system of organization of anything. He'd kept the JUNK pile as small as possible without deliberately suppressing it and that was the most anyone could ask.

    A description of this system makes it all sound a lot easier than it actually was. Often he got into a situation where incoming TOUGH slips and the JUNK slips would indicate his whole system of making topics was wrong. Some slips would fit in two or three categories and other slips would fit into no categories at all and he began to see that he would have to tear the whole system of organization apart and begin to reorganize it differently, because if he didn't, the JUNK pile and the TOUGH pile and the GRIT pile would start howling at him louder and louder until he had to do it.

    Those were bad days, but sometimes the new reorganization would leave the JUNK piles and the TOUGH piles bigger than they were when he started. Slips that had fit the old organization now didn't fit the new one, and he began to see that what he had to do now was go back and redo it all over again the old way. Those were the really bad days.

  • Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it. A library is one of civilization's most powerful tools precisely because of its card-catalog trays.

    This really resonates.

  • @magnus Thanks for sharing! Good thing with a computer-based system is that the slips/notes/zettels can belong to different piles simultaneously. So, less headache there.

  • As does this....

    The slips kept expanding in every direction so that the more he saw the more he saw there was to see. It was like a Venturi effect which pulled ideas into it endlessly, on and on. He saw there were a million things to read, a million leads to follow . . . too much . .. too much .. . and not enough time in one life to get it all together. Snowed under.

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