Subject: Lessons from readings
It was a freezing, snowy afternoon in the borough of Queens in New York City. The clock struck 3:00 p.m., and there I was, hunched over my desk in the warmth of my room, with nothing but a pen and my Zettelkasten to keep me company.
But alone in my thoughts, I was nothing but lonely. I was, in fact, communicating with my alter ego. The topic of our communication? The Antinet Zettelkasten by Scott Scheper.
It was then when, while installing a few cards in their respective locations in my file, I was reminded of one the most powerful advantages of the analog Zettelkasten: sensory diversity.
You see, I was shuffling through my cards when I came across a note written in smudgy blue ink of medium nib thickness on a creamy white 4×6 card with a faint stain on the upper right corner—and that was enough to reinvigorate my train of thought and put me in the state of mind needed to continue writing on that section. The second I experienced this effect, I exclaimed in awe. It was a beautiful feeling—to be able to remember the time and place that the particular note was written on, as well as the the thinking process that led to my writing the note.
An analog Zettelkasten is a sensory oasis! And the more sensory diversity you encounter, the more pathways for memorization you activate. I am sure you intuitively know this concept very well. Have you ever sniffed someone’s fragrance or a particular food only to be transported to a specific time in your childhood that you had forgotten until that very moment? That’s the idea. And it can manifest itself across a range of sensory experiences.
If you haven’t felt that yet with your own Zettelkasten, I am sure you will as your notes populate your notebox over time.
Now, with that observation out of the way, let me tell you why my letters haven’t been arriving to your inbox weekly: I am a slow reader.
I have spent the bulk of the past few weeks digesting Scott’s book—which is inundated with research, philosophy, and practical applications. While doing that, I also revisited Luhmann’s Communicating with Slip Boxes and Johannes F. K. Schmidt’s paper on Luhmann’s card index. And, as you can understand, I found myself, yet again, deep into the Zettelaksten rabbit hole. Nevertheless, I came out of it with a renewed familiarity and appreciation for the method.
So, what I want to do today is go light on the technicalities of the Antinet (e.g., numbering, references, index, etc.) and, instead, share with some broader lessons that I have learned from my readings.
First and foremost, you should always remember that the Antinet is not a magic pill that will make you a better a writer. It’s a method—a method that you have to invest time in to realize its immense potential benefits.
Second. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise: Alphanumeric card addresses are what make everything else possible in your Antinet. They are not optional. A digital Zettelkasten that does away with alphanumeric addresses utilizes the only other alternative: a human-readable note title (especially digital variations). As Scott writes, Luhmann didn’t title his notes because doing so risked misrepresenting the nature of the note. Also, from my own experience, the author might never be able to summarize the contents in the tile field, thereby risking bypassing ideas later on that are worthy of further examination.
Alphanumeric card addresses are what provide the possibility for linking, branching, and mental clarity in a world of information chaos. They are your Antinet.
Third. Do not be afraid to create your own top-level categories. As mentioned in my last email, I do not follow Scott’s convention, yet I don’t think that I am limited to my categories. As long as you establish broad starting points, everything else can simply fall in place as your file expands (just don’t be like Luhmann and create 108 highly specific top-level categories that will force you to expend your notes when you decide to write your 30-year thesis.)
Fourth. The structure of your Zettelkasten facilitates thinking. Even though it is impossible to remember everything that is written in your notes, the fact they are placed in branching neighborhoods allows you to have a mental outline of the topics and ideas within your file. I have found that I can facilitate deep conversations without having to rely on the notes themselves.
Fifth. Friction is important for thinking and linking information. Another justification for using software implementations is the ability to remove fiction. Friction however, as Scott and Niklas Luhmann repeatedly remind us, is a crucial feature of an analog Zettelkasten. This forces you to carefully consider aspects such as branching, hierarchy, keyword index maintenance, and cross-file referencing (achieved either through direct links or hub notes). For instance, if I need to create a new note, I must consider its position based on its relationship with existing ideas and then assign it a unique address (e.g., 3/6a, the card for Niklas Luhmann) which, then, could be linked to other notes and topics as well as become reachable from the index.
Sixth. Do not fall in love with the method; fall in love with the content. In the analog world you have no choice but to engage with your notes. They are your distractions. Luhmann was working on multiple projects simultaneously, so when he would lose interest in a certain topic, he would simply set it aside and work on something else. The Antinet thrives in the context of projects.
Seventh. Adding to the above point, there is a truth that more people, I believe, must hear: The tools are of little to no importance when you don’t have the mind to engage in the process of creation. Yes, without the tool, you cannot move forward, but in today’s environment, the focus seems to have shifted towards tweaking out setups rather than using them to advance the ideas that they were designed to help us with.
Eighth. One of the main characteristics of a successful Zettelkasten implementation is the system’s attractive force towards the author. The system should motivate you to read with it, explore it, endlessly write in it, and pursue a journey of interconnected thought patterns and ideas. In other words, it needs to be addictive, to actively be calling for your attention. Then, and only then you will get the most out of it.
Ninth. Iterate but only when needed. It’s too easy to waste hours pre-empting problems that might arise in your Antinet. Do not do that. Over-engineering your notebox will constrain your future endeavors. Instead, deal with the problems as they arise.
While there is always more to be learned, I believe these lessons are a great starting point for the week ahead.
For now, I am going to dive back into my sensory oasis to continue my knowledge development.
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