In one of my recent blogposts I wrote about feeling like I don’t retain as much of what I read as I like. This is true especially for information dense non-fiction like text books. After giving it some thought, I’ve decided to try keeping a Zettelkasten for a while and seeing how that goes. Like I mentioned in my earlier post, I initially thought of exporting my highlights from my Kindle into some kind of spaced repetition system but it didn’t seem like the right solution. Maybe I’ll come back to the SRS approach later.

Anyway, back to the Zettelkasten. The idea is essentially to keep a box of index cards. Whenever you encounter an interesting thought, you write it down on a new index card and add it to your collection. In addition to its content, every card gets a unique ID which allows you to reference other cards and create a network of connected ideas. The reason it has a German name is that it was used (purportedly to great effect) by a German scientist, Niklas Luhmann. Over the course of his career as a social scientist, he wrote and kept thousands of notes. If you read about Zettelkasten online, you’ll find lots of Luhmann-mythology. I’m not very interested in this stuff and I won’t hesitate to change the system to fit me but for the time, I’m going with the original method.

My approach so far is to underline and dog ear interesting passages as I read and turn those into Zettel soon after I finish a book. It feels good to digest books in this way and have something to go back to later. I’ve always highlighted passages while reading but can’t remember ever going back to a book and doing anything with the highlights. I hope having access to the information in this different format will change that.

Another hope I have is to be able to turn zettelcluster into blog posts once I have read a few more books. I expect that’s where the cross-references might become useful.

The best resource on Zettelkästen I could find online is on the lesswrong page. I also read How to Take Smart Notes which I can’t recommend.