Zettelkasten Forum


Reading Notes and Personal use of Zettelkasten

I hope that everyone Is well. I am new to the Zettelkasten system and absolutely excited to start. I wanted to know if anyone utilizes the system for personal use. I read on a broad variety of topics, primarily non-fiction and wanted to retain more of what I was reading. I needed a system for that and this seems to be one that might fit. Does it make sense to keep such a system if I am not producing anything such as a paper or a book or blog? My next question is how short should reading notes be. I do not want to break the flow of my reading though at the same time I want to capture the thought that was sparked in my mind. I do not want to underline or write in the margins any longer as I feel it is unproductive. Thank you.

Comments

  • Hello.

    I'm in the same boat as you. Most of my wanting to learn to use this more is for personal knowledge improvements more than any planned sharing. Now, I say "planned sharing", because I do find myself telling others about what I have learned, usually online in places like this, and having the ability to search and give answers from the Zettelkasten is great. So, I would say having a Zettelkasten makes producing a paper/book/blog easier, but it works just fine without that goal in mind for personal knowledge (though others have argued that to truly know a subject, you should try to sum it up in your own words all together, which goes very well with Zettelkasten principles).

    As for reading notes, it is my understanding that Luhmann himself just kept a card that had "On page X, it says blah", nothing more. I've not seen a lot more elaboration on exactly how concise that was, or how verbatim. Personally, as I like digital mediums, I've been looking at different highlighting techniques for ebooks, pdfs, and websites, and just capturing only the highlighted parts into new Markdown files, to then process into actual notes. Seemed the digital equivalent of "On page X, it says blah" to me.

    Good luck!

  • edited December 5

    To get a feeling for the Gestalt of Luhmann's notes, here's a busy one by Luhmann with a couple of Zettel links and literature references at the beginning of a branch
    ZK I: Zettel 13 (1)

    Later in the branch, there's the end of a 2-page commentary in his own voice ZK I: Zettel 13,1a, then afterwards a short one ZK I: Zettel 13,1b saying, roughly translated:

    The opinion that the will of the people is limited to approbation or reprobation does not go quite as far as the theory of competition.

    according to Kaufmann a.a.O.; furthermore L.S. Amery, Thoughts on the Constitution, 3rd ed. 1949, p. 16

    It does not take into account, however, that there are possibilities, to direct the will of the people.

    You see, there's super-short paraphrases with literature references, then a short commentary again.


    For non-productive interests, I can also recommend "The Independent Scholar's Handbook" by Ronald Gross. There you find instructions on how to build a $5 table yourself, I think as a proof if you really want to be a scholar above all :) Plus a couple of motivational essays.

    The Zettelkasten Method of knowledge processing applies to bibliophiles and scholarly-minded, i.e. people who like to learn and read and stuff, just as well as it applies to writers!

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

  • @ctietze @ mleo2003 Thank you for the input. I really appreciate it. I definitely see your point and do agree. I above all want to process the information/knowledge I read and this system helps this. I may even start to produce some written work as well. Looking forward to starting this venture.

  • I do not think that there is a difference between thinking on a subject and writing in a structured concise manner about it. Thinking and doing knowledge work is like writing a book but withour publishing it.

  • I think Zettelkasten is an excellent place for personal notes. I do not use it actively to write blog posts or papers, but what I find is that connected notes create more connected notes. When I put a note in my Zettelkasten system it has some relationship to other notes in there - then I think about it more and find more connections or think about other thing. However, I tend to try and process out side of the actual note archive - if I am trying to process and understand my thoughts I need something other than a note repository for the task. I think mixing up the tasks - initially understanding ideas and incorporating into a larger framework - are done with less mental strain if they are separate tasks. It is like the difference between writing and editing - if you edit while you write - you will self censor and inhibit the flow of your thought.

  • @sfast great point. You are absolutely correct. I never thought of it this way. I guess when you have a project of some kind in mind such as writing a book your research/reading is more focused. I feel like my reading grows organically and is very varied, not too focused. And a bit all over. I guess that is the whole purpose of it for me, to find links in different subject matter.

  • @NiranS thanks for the input. I have not started a Zettelkasten as of yet. I am still trying to learn the ins and outs of it. Also I am in between whether this should be analog or digital. I love the idea of the notes interconnecting. It is the building of our metal lattice as Charlie Munger says that is most important. I also like the fact that it forces you to review which is like space repetition. How do you take notes while reading with this system?

  • I highly suggest you read How to Take Smart Notes. It talks in great detail about how Zettelkasten works. It's very helpful to know what's important and what isn't.

  • @VDL1516 said:
    How do you take notes while reading with this system?

    Short answer. Taking notes is a skill that develops over time. Relax, Don't Worry. One system doesn't fit all circumstances.

    Caveat - I'm no pro. Still a work in process.

    Long answer. Many different ways. Often I read books I own with a pen in hand. I highlight and make cryptic notes in the margins. Later processing and rereading the highlighted and noted sections so as not to break up the flow of reading too much. I do find that on second reading I sometimes find myself wondering what I thought was so interesting about a certain highlight. This becomes a way of filtering.

    I'm fond of libraries and they frown on making up books. I sometimes use a pencil and put a light discrete mark in the margin and during second reading of "highlights", I erase the special marks.

    Ebooks I treat differently. Kindle and Scribd have highlighting features. I highlight liberally and I review the highlight as I create notes. Sometimes I'll cut and paste these highlights directly in a note and then either quote them or paraphrase them in my own words. Adding my comments.

    Sometimes I read with an open notebook beside me. Sometimes this is inconvenient and I that spurs me to take notes some other way or delay reading a particular piece till I can conveniently read with an open notebook.

    With many articles and papers, I print them out (up to 30 pages) and carry them around with me and mark them up with notes when I have time. Last week I read and marked up José Rodríguez Pazos's, Ernest Hemingway: The Complexity of Simplicity while waiting in the doctor's office. I read through 20 of 25 pages making notes in the margins before the doctor showed up. She was apologetic that she was so late and I was wishing she'd have been even later.

    I carry a small pocket notebook with me to capture extraneous atoms of knowledge that the universe bombards me as I saunter around town. These usually end up in my archive.

    Will Simpson
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @Will, absolutely excellent and thorough advice on taking notes. Thank you for the input. It is very helpful. Prior to finding the Zettelkasten system I would read books, underline and write in the margins. The problem I ran into is the processing of that information. I did not go back to it and put further thought into it. Thats when I started to research processing of knowledge. I absolutely love to read and write in the margins when something stimulates my mind and love to see where that goes. I have many books that I have utilized that system with. I am wondering if I should go back to these books and store the marginalia in the Zettelkasten system. Do you process your notes at the end of a reading session, say per chapter or when you are finished with the book?
    Thanks again for the information.

  • edited December 6

    @sigod thanks for your input. I actually did read the book and it was very helpful. The piece I am a bit confused about is the literature notes, “ Whenever he read something, he would write the bibliographic information on one side of a card and make brief notes about the content on the other side (Schmidt 2013, 170).” These notes would end up in the bibliographic slip-box.” So it appears that the literature notes or notes while reading are in preparation for the second note which is to go into the slip box.
    This is a new approach since I am used to writing my whole thought out in the margin and not just a brief note. What are the benefits to writing the brief/literature note? Is it so you do not break up your reading flow? My concern here is that I may lose my whole thought by being brief.
    My apologies, this is new and I feel it will be beneficial though I am just trying to work out the kinks.

  • @VDL1516 said:
    I am wondering if I should go back to these books and store the marginalia in the Zettelkasten system. Do you process your notes at the end of a reading session, say per chapter or when you are finished with the book?

    I'd recommend starting from where you are. I found myself so busy formulating and building my Zetelkasten that I don't have much interest or time to go backward. But this is me and my "special" case. Your "special" case will be different.

    The best advice I've gotten, which I'm still striving to meet is "Scratch your own itches." It is great to hear what others are doing and to pick up the bits that move you. Try this and try that and see for yourself.

    I see my reading/notetaking in 3 or 4 stages.
    1. The read. Highlights and marginalia.
    2. Let percolate. An hour or days. Who knows.
    3. Review and create a summary note and associate atomic notes.
    4. Search for pre-existing serendipitous synchronicity.

    This is a general outline of my method but currently, I'm reading Eliezer Yudkowsky's Rationality: From AI to Zombies which is ~2800 pages and I'm trying to not get too far behind in my conversion from notes to input into zettelkasten. 18 notes and only 20% into reading.

    Will Simpson
    kestrelcreek.com

  • Speaking as a slightly different outlier: My work is mostly writing fiction. This means that the sorts of ideas I'm dealing with range from 201812101925 History Glitches - 2012 to 201910241616 Rodin's The Thinker feels unfinished to 201911042336 Cyberpunk Alien Wakeup. I think that by definition these notes are very personal, in the sense you intend. And I find that Zettelkasten is by far the best way keep these notes. The idea of finding connections between concepts that are not immediately obvious applies, I would argue, to every part of intellectual life, not just what we think of as "knowledge work".

  • @sigod since you read the book How to Take Smart Notes, what do your literature notes look like? I unfortunately am having a difficult time with the first note while reading. I feel as if I am writing way too much and it could be a zettel itself.

  • @VDL1516 , take a look at David Epstein: “Range” - Book Processing. Christian talks about creating literature notes using The Archive. He shows one way of doing the notetaking and processing into a summary note and associated notes with links deeper in his zettelkasten. He's done six videos so far, and I've gotten a ton of insight from watching him in action.

    Will Simpson
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @VDL1516 said:
    @sigod since you read the book How to Take Smart Notes, what do your literature notes look like? I unfortunately am having a difficult time with the first note while reading. I feel as if I am writing way too much and it could be a zettel itself.

    I'd read How to Write a Thesis by Umberto Eco on that matter.

  • @sfast thank you. Could you elaborate a bit more as to what you do for your first note or notes while reading? I am used to the my old system of underlining and writing in the margins so it seems difficult for me to write a brief note. In how to write smart notes the author speaks about the literature note being simplistic stating "on page x is this." Then from these notes you create your permanent notes or zettels? I guess it feels artificial because as I am reading I am trying to write shorter notes and inhibiting my thoughts because I am going to revisit them later when creating a zettel.

  • edited December 12

    Not @sfast but...

    Hope this helps. @sfast I've shown you mine, now show me where I can improve. I know I can improve.

    I start usually from the preface. I "process" the knowledge from my raw highlights and marginalia to zettel. Here is a photo. On the left is a structure/literature note and on the right one of the associated zettels. Some chapters one atom, some none, and some multiple atoms, maybe a whole molecule of knowledge. Some atoms are so small that they can just be stated in the structure/literature note others are a bit bigger and I state them separate. No rhythm or reason, just what moves me at the moment.

    Will Simpson
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @will I welcome all feedback I can get. Thank you for this great visual. I do appreciate it. I actually read a post between you and @sfast in reference to the reading and writing system that you both use. That post cleared up many questions I had lingering in my head. Do you still approach reading a book the same way. Read highlight, marginalia and underline. Then go back a second time to scoop up the marginalia and marked passages? Are you taking directly from your book and creating what is here on the left side?

    I read the barbell method which further clarified what I was looking for.

  • @VDL1516 Somewhere I heard that letting a reading percolate can be a good thing. The time varies from a few minutes to a few months and sometimes I forget about a book and I never process it. Oh well.

    The sample in the picture is what I'm currently reading/processing. This book is 2800 pages and I fear that because it is so big and dense, I would hesitate to take the time needed to process it all at once. I have heard some processing tasks have taken over 6 weeks of dedicated work because the text was so dense with actionable knowledge. With this book, I have a special strategy. Probably not optimal. I am reading and highlighting it as an ebook while doing cardio at the gym. I can get through a half dozen chapters at the gym. In the evening I process my highlights into the structure note. Even so, I'm behind. I've processed chapter 56 and have read up to chapter 98. 20 notes and only 20% read. I'm really getting behind.

    Will Simpson
    kestrelcreek.com

  • @VDL1516 said:
    @sfast thank you. Could you elaborate a bit more as to what you do for your first note or notes while reading? I am used to the my old system of underlining and writing in the margins so it seems difficult for me to write a brief note. In how to write smart notes the author speaks about the literature note being simplistic stating "on page x is this." Then from these notes you create your permanent notes or zettels? I guess it feels artificial because as I am reading I am trying to write shorter notes and inhibiting my thoughts because I am going to revisit them later when creating a zettel.

    I don't do literature notes. I select the relevant structure notes for a saved search in The Archive and create necessary lacking structure notes. Then I will branche from them. Only classics (e.g. The Bible, Antichrist by Nietzsche, etc.) will get their own structure notes.

    @VDL1516 said:
    @will I welcome all feedback I can get. Thank you for this great visual. I do appreciate it. I actually read a post between you and @sfast in reference to the reading and writing system that you both use. That post cleared up many questions I had lingering in my head. Do you still approach reading a book the same way. Read highlight, marginalia and underline. Then go back a second time to scoop up the marginalia and marked passages? Are you taking directly from your book and creating what is here on the left side?

    I read the barbell method which further clarified what I was looking for.

    I practice what I preach. I read the first time with a pen. The second time I process everything that has something in the margins of the book. :smile:

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