Wed, 3 March 2021
A Book on Notetaking? It’s Not What You Might Expect Amazon showed me Sönke Ahrens’s How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers about twenty times in sponsored posts before I finally broke down to see what it was all about. I decided to retrieve a sample chapter on my Kindle. I couldn’t put the book down and read it well into the night. My wife even asked me what in the world I was reading, to which I sheepishly confessed it was a book on taking notes. This book is not about Reformed theology, church history, or even philosophy, but I’m confident many of you will be intrigued. I loved this book so much that I ordered several copies to give as gifts to friends. This book isn’t what you might expect. It’s not a self-help book with tips for becoming a better student, for listening better, and capturing your thoughts for better processing and recall later on. I believe that following the model suggested in this book may in fact make you a better student and researcher. It will certainly help you to process your thoughts. But this book goes much deeper than a series of tips and tricks. It’s a proposition for a more disciplined—yet much more liberating—process of contemplation and writing. The Heart of the Book At the heart of Ahren’s How to Take Smart Notes is a somewhat idiosyncratic notetaking system developed by German sociologist Niklaus Luhmann. He used a system that is known as a Zettelkasten, or notes box. Ahrens categorizes notes into three types. • Ephemeral notes (these get thrown out) • Literature notes (write these as you read a book, but keep them separate) • Zettelkasten (process your literature notes and write permanent notes—one per idea)
Link your note to the other notes in your existing network or note-ideas.
In my conceptualization, Luhmann’s method is a form of atomic writing. You must force yourself to formulate your thoughts and write them as if writing them for someone else. This can be difficult, and you may find much personal inertia to this approach. That’s because you think you know the subject matter better than you do. Writing is the thinking process. By using this method, Luhmann was able to write more than 70 books and 400 scholarly articles before he died at the age of 70. That is impressive. But perhaps even more impressive than his scholarly output is the nature of his scholarship. He was able to approach subjects in fresh ways, finding surprising connections among disparate disciplines. This was due in part to the unexpected connections made by his Zettelkasten.
Luhmann wrote his notes on cards and filed them in a physical catalogue. There is much to be said about the benefits of handwriting and the tactile qualities of this form of note-taking, yet there are also many limitations—particularly with linking and searchability. For those who are interested in a digital approach to Zettelkasten, an entire ecosystem is developing around what generally is called Personal Knowledge Management (PKM). People not only use the Zettelkasten method and its variants for academic research and writing, but also for all types of creative work, personal journaling, and even for CRM (customer/constituent relationship management).
I am currently exploring how to link my thoughts as I read and contemplate Scripture. Intelligently linking all the Scripture references in my notes and sermons may prove to be immensely useful when approaching related texts in the future.