The real story of Napoleon?

    a portrait of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

    If you’re thinking of viewing Ridley Scott’s movie version of Napoleon 🍿, or if you’ve already seen it, I’d recommend also reading The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. 📚

    This Pulitzer prizewinning biography puts Napoleon’s life and times in historical context and it’s an amazing story. The ‘black count’ of the title was Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. He rose from obscurity to became Napoleon’s commander of cavalry during the Egyptian campaign.

    But quite unlike Napoleon, he seems to have been motivated by something rather more than personal glory. He actually believed in the ideals of the Revolution, not least the implementation of Liberté.

    As an aside, the book provides a huge number of fascinating factoids, such as why dolomite (the mineral as well as the mountain range) is named dolomite.

    Why I'm writing faster

    Why do you write?

    Everyone has their reasons but I write so I can think:

    Writing is not simply a way of saying what someone knows but one of the most effective ways to unveil what there is to say. As Baker (1985) suggests, “in fact, writing creates a thought and the capacity to think: with writing you discover thoughts that you barely knew you had”

    • Baker, S. (1985). The practical stylist. Harper and Row. p. 2-3). 1

    But what slows you down?

    I’ve been running this site, and writing slowly since 25 January 2014. For the first nine years it really lived up to its name, because I posted very rarely. The reason, I reasoned, was that the WordPress front end and I just didn’t get along. It was a room of my own, sure, but it wasn’t comfortable. It just didn’t feel like a room I wanted to spend time in.

    The author Virginia Woolf wrote about how women need a room of one’s own to write in. But that still left the rest of the world to the men. Jane Austin wrote at the kitchen table of a busy household, and it wasn’t ideal. Capitalism gives us hot-desking - not even a table to call your own. So your virtual environment really matters. A UI of your own? Not likely.

    And what speeds you up?

    Eventually, after complaining about WordPress for five years, and having tentatively connected the site to (not before eight months of procrastination) while still hosting it on WordPress, I finally switched completely to as the host. This meant the front-end editor also changed completely. Now I just had a plain box to write in, with a couple of options for simple categories. Often though, I just wrote in a text editor and copy-pasted as necessary. The outcome was stark. This shift resulted in a dramatic increase in writing frequency, which given the name of the site is a little embarrassing. On 27 January 2023 I wrote:

    “Don’t worry, whatever happens I’ll still be writing slowly.

    Between 2014 and 2022 I had only written 26 posts. But following the big changeover I wrote 194 posts and counting, in a single year. As a result there’s now about 33,000 words on this site. And here are the latest statistics.

    So what’s the right speed for you?

    I admit it then: I’ve sped up. Yet I still maintain that writing slowly is the way to go. A little every day or two adds up to a whole heap. Never mind the quality. Just look at the size! Maybe I’ll change the name of this site to Writing Bigly.

    “Don’t worry, whatever happens I’ll still be writing bigly.”

    Well clearly that won’t be happening. Meanwhile, though, I wish you a very big writing year ahead. Let me know in the comments what you’ve achieved, and what you have planned. Exciting!

    More on writing and blogging

    1. Quoted in Cruz, Robson Nascimento da Cruz, and Junio Rezende. “A escrita de notas como artesanato intelectual: Niklas Luhmann e a escrita acadêmica como processo.” Pro-Posições 34 (2023): e20210123. English PDF↩︎

    Publish first, write later

    A flightless emu stands on the fore-dune of an Australian beach, apparently gazing towards the ocean
    Even a flightless bird may contemplate the constant flight forward

    “Literature is perhaps nothing more complicated and glorious than the act of writing and publishing, and publishing again and again."
    - Marcelo Ballvé, on the curious writing career of César Aira

    César Aira on the constant flight forward

    Argentinian author César Aira’s writing process is more about action than reflection. In a moment I’m going to share with you an extract from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira, an essay by Marcelo Ballvé, originally published in The Quarterly Conversation in 2008.

    But before coming to the extract, I’ll just comment on David Kurnick’s claim in Public Books that Aira’s work is primarily about process:

    “It is not in the least original to begin talking about César Aira’s work by recounting the technique that produces it. But it can’t be helped: Aira has made a discussion of his practice obligatory. To read him is less to evaluate a freestanding book, or a series of them, than to encounter one of the most extraordinary ongoing projects in contemporary literature.”

    True, I’m not being at all original here, just cutting and pasting. Still…

    The letter Aleph, from the cover of the first edition of Borges' short story of that name

    Aira’s own Aleph

    It’s as though through his writing Aira has found the basement in Buenos Aires that contains the entire universe in condensed form, the basement that features in Borges’s 1945 story “The Aleph”.

    And having found that fabled basement, it’s as though Aira has taken on the persona of Carlos Argentino Daneri, the character in Borges' story whose life’s obsessive goal is to write a poetic epic describing each and every location on Earth in perfect detail.

    But instead of taking the find seriously, Aira parodies it. Everything is here: and what do you know? None of it makes sense! Or, perhaps instead of parodying “The Aleph”, he takes it completely seriously: Why not write about it, about all of it? What then? In an interview in 2017 for the New Yorker, Aira said: “I am thinking now that maybe . . . maybe all my work is a footnote to Borges.”

    Of course I’m not just cutting and pasting. I’m writing too. Aira also inspires my own writing process. His example inspires me to choose my own race - and finish it.

    One of my role models is the Argentinian author César Aira. He’s written a very large number of novels and novellas (at least 80 - around two to five per year since 1993), published by a variety of presses. That’s a lot of races and a lot of finish lines crossed.

    Now here’s Marcelo Ballvé on Aira’s unique writing process.

    According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator. Anyone can use it.

    Aira’s procedure, which he has elucidated in essays and interviews, is what he calls el continuo, or la huida hacia adelante. These concepts might be translated into English as “the continuum,” and a “constant flight forward.” Editing is an abhorrent idea in the context of Aira’s continuum. To edit oneself would be to retrace one’s steps, go backwards, when the idea is to always move forward. To judge yesterday’s writing session, to censor a lapse into the absurd or the irrational, to revive a character your work-in-progress sent tumbling over a cliff—all of these actions go against Aira’s procedure. Instead, the system prioritizes an ethic of creative self-affirmation and, I would say, optimism. To labor to justify previous work with more strange creations that in turn establish the need for ever more artistic high-wire acts in the future—this is the continuum, the high-wire act the artist must perform when he refuses to submit to any rule that is not his autonomously chosen procedure. It is an act performed with deep abysses yawning to each side of him—conformity, market pressures, conventionality, self-repression of all kinds . . . In other words, Aira’s literary career, embodied in each of his 63 novels, is a reckless pursuit of artistic freedom.

    Aira says that when he sits down to write his daily page or two, he writes pretty much whatever comes into his head, with no strictures except that of continuing the previous day’s work. (The spontaneous feel of his stories would seem to back up this claim, but I’ve always asked, can anyone write as well as Aira does while simply letting the pen ramble?)

    True, his books are very short. Aira says in interviews that he’s often tried to make his novels longer, but they seem to come to a natural rest at around the 100-page mark. Technically, much of what Aira has written would have to be classified in the novella category, but it’s hard to classify Aira’s work within any genre, be it story, novel, or novella. In my mind, Aira’s creations are something different altogether. They are stories, pure and simple, which Aira has managed to ennoble by seeing them into publication in the form of a single book. What he has done is put stories into circulation as objects, which is a defiant feat when seen in the context of a global literary market that demands hefty, sprawling, “big” novels.

    The key to Aira’s curious career, I think, is to be found in his conception of literature as something with more affinities to the realm of action than the inner world of reflection. Literature is perhaps nothing more complicated and glorious than the act of writing and publishing, and publishing again and again. Editing is dispensable, so is the search for the “right” publisher. (Aira publishes seemingly with whomever shows any interest in his manuscripts; at least a dozen publishers, most of them small independents, in Argentina alone.) The idea seems to be: publish first and ask questions later…In fact Aira’s mentor, the deceased Argentine poet and novelist Osvaldo Lamborghini had a saying: “Publish first, write later.”

    Extracted from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira, by Marcelo Ballvé. The Quarterly Conversation

    César Aira’s main publisher in English is New Directions. They’ve published about 21 of Aira’s works in translation, while And Other Stories has published another half-dozen.

    Now read: Choose your own race

    Choose your own race and finish it

    Ink sketch of the tortoise from Aesop's Fables, 1894

    Are you Hare or Tortoise?

    The idea of writing slowly appeals to me because it comes from Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise. Perhaps you remember it.

    The hare challenges the tortoise to a race, which he’s obviously the favourite to win. Everyone knows a hare moves much faster than a tortoise. As expected, the hare shoots ahead, then slows for a well-deserved rest, since there’s no way the tortoise will ever catch up. Meanwhile, the tortoise just plods along and eventually passes the hare, who has fallen into a deep sleep by the side of the road. The hare wakes up, just in time to watch the tortoise cross the finish line first.

    Now perhaps the moral of the story is something like: slow and steady wins the race. Well, sure, that’s a good moral. And it’s true too: if you just keep on going you’ll achieve far more than if you give up. Obviously.

    Another popular interpretation is that ‘pride comes before a fall’. Everyone knew the hare was fast, so why did he have to boast about it? And by trying to beat a tortoise, of all creatures?

    I think of myself as someone who hasn’t been quick to publish. I think that because its completely, starkly true. There are others much quicker than me (for example, everyone who ever published). But if publishing quickly is your key metric, there’s now a big problem.

    Too fast to keep up

    On Amazon there are hundreds or even thousands of genre fiction writers who are writing a novel a month or even faster, just to satisfy the voracious appetite of the algorithm. If they slow down their pace even a little, the site loses sight of them and they risk sinking back down towards obscurity - so all they can do is keep going, writing faster and faster, and with the assistance of AI tools if necessary. In relation to these prolific authors, everyone is writing slowly.

    But now that AI has worked out how to tell a coherent story too, the humans, however fast, have no chance. Bots are writing for themselves, and they can write far, far quicker than any human could possibly keep up. If all that matters is quantity, we’re sorted - AI will make mountains of it.

    In 2023 for example, the news reported literary journals closing their books to new entries because they were simply overwhelmed by automated entries that the editors couldn’t tell apart from the stories written by humans. And with so many entries they didn’t have time to check anyway1.

    So from now on, by most metrics, all humans are writing slowly. Let’s face it, in relation to the machines, we’re second best, no longer gold medal material. It’s enough to induce a bout of Promethean shame.

    Each of these moments of innovation involves an emotion similar to what German philosopher Günther Anders called ‘Promethean shame’. This is the feeling that technology is embarrassing us by pointing out our human limitations. We’re just not as good at doing things as the tech that we invented to ‘help’ us do it. In Anders' original formulation the shame arose in the observation of high quality manufactured goods. What was it shame of? That we were born, not manufactured (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, 1956). In the face of the latest AI panic, we’re asking, yet again: if the tools don’t really need us, what’s the point of humans at all?

    Keep your eye on the finish line

    But for me, the key message of the fable of the hare and the tortoise isn’t about how you’ll win the race if you just keep going. I don’t really have any problem with keeping going. I’m tenacious and have a lot of inertia. That means I find it hard to start, but equally hard to stop. No, for me the moral of the fable of the hare and the tortoise is quite different.

    The story reminds me that I’ve only won when I cross the finish line. Anything else isn’t a victory. That means it’s OK to write slowly, but what I need to keep sight of is finishing something, anything, and shipping it. It’s not enough to actually write, however fast or slow. What matters is publishing, in whatever form, for whatever audience.

    But maybe the process is what matters

    One of my role models is the Argentinian author César Aira. He’s written a very large number of novels and novellas (at least 80 - around two to five per year since 1993), published by a variety of presses. That’s a lot of races and a lot of finish lines crossed.

    Even if you met another Aira fan it would be unlikely you’d both have read the same Aira books, because there are just so many of them. And of course, Aira’s has written a novel called The Hare - but who, even among Aira enthusiasts, has read it? In other words, Aira’s oeuvre is more the record of a particular creative process than it is a body of work to be read in its entirety.

    Indeed, the critic Marcello Balvé says Aira’s many novels are “stepping stones, a trail of crumbs leading to a place as close to the molten heart of creation as it is possible to come without burning up.” That’s a bit overheated, but why not2?

    Which way are you running?

    The story of the hare and the tortoise reminds me too that while I can’t really control my top speed, I can at least control the length and direction of the race I’m running. I often think in terms of writing a whole book, or even a series of books - only to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task I’ve set myself.

    But it doesn’t have to be like this. Aira only writes short books, but he publishes roughly two a year. A book is made out of chapters, and chapters are built from sections, and sections are made from paragraphs and sentences. In fact, the road to a complete book passes necessarily through a series of completed short pieces, each no harder to write than this one I’m writing right now. I could rein in my ambitions, and publish as I go, one idea at a time.

    That way, instead of never completing anything, I’ll always be completing something. And publishing it for you to read, exactly as I’m doing now.

    But whether I’m a tortoise or a hare, or even a person who resists anthropomorphizing animals just for the sake of a cheap fable, or even a person who’s uncomfortable with running and competition metaphors, all the same I’m running my own race: watch me win.

    More on writing slowly

    You can get a lot done by writing slowly

    Why I’m writing slowly

    Writing about my worm farm

    Thoughts are nest-eggs. Thoreau on writing

    More on Artificial intelligence (AI) and large language models (LLMs)

    Despite AI, the Internet is still personal

    Can AI give me ham off a knee?

    More than ever, embracing your humanity is the way forward

    Jules Verne could have told us AI is not a real person

    Gaslit by machinery that calls itself a person

    1. In the case of reading magazine submissions, the threat of AI imitating humans is a little overblown. To maintain a manageable slush pile you simply need to introduce some little task that only a human could perform. You could accept only manuscripts that were sent in the mail, for example. This immediately kills the zero-cost proposition of submitting AI-written stories. And when that gets gamed, you could decide to read only those submissions with a hand-written address on the envelope. In other words, if you only want to accept human labour, you just need to request human labour. Re-introduce any human work at all, and the cost benefits of automation are curtailed or even eliminated. ↩︎

    2. If you’re using crumbs to reach the molten heart of creation, they’ll pretty soon be toast. ↩︎

    In eight different ways, to have a friend is to be one

    A few years ago, Barking Up The Wrong Tree reflected on research 1 that identified the eight different kinds of friends you need. But it struck me that this is really a primer on the eight different kinds of friend you need to be to others.

    Remember the old saying, “to have a friend is to be one”? Well there’s more than one way you can be a friend to someone and you’re probably not making the most of all your opportunities here. I’m not saying you should try to cover all the bases. It’s unlikely any one person could really fulfill all the eight roles to best effect. Instead, I’m using this as a checklist to reflect on:

    • the friendship roles I’m good at,
    • the roles I’m bad at, and
    • the roles I’d like to focus more on.

    I’m also using this as a way of being more reflective about what my various friends actually need from me. For example, I tend to do a lot of ‘mind-opening’, but actually, this may not always be very useful. If I’m honest, it might well just be annoying.

    “What do you need right now?” might be a good phrase to practice!

    Eight ways to be a friend

    • The Builder
    • The Champion
    • The Collaborator
    • The Companion
    • The Connector
    • The Energizer
    • The Mind Opener
    • The Navigator

    1. Well, Tom Rath’s 2006 book, Vital Friends↩︎

    Is domain-hosting a viable social media business model?

    Since July 2023 BlueSky has apparently learned from Manton Reece and that you can run a sustainable and open social media network with a domain-hosting business model.

    Almost learned. There’s a way to go yet, with a big missing owning your content piece.

    Meanwhile, cross-posts automatically to BlueSky, so the #Interverse1 is gradually becoming a reality. 😍

    “You can automatically cross-post your microblog posts to Medium, Mastodon, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Flickr, Bluesky, Nostr, and Pixelfed.” Source

    I’m not using BlueSky myself. I really loved Paul Frazee’s work on BeakerBrowser, and it’s great he’s working on BlueSky. That’s very nearly enough to sign me up, but the venture capital vibe still puts me right off. I mean, ultimately it’s all just for the venture fund returns isn’t it?

    I’m very happy just owning my content, and sharing it with you myself, with a little help from and Mastodon. So thanks for reading, wherever you read.

    1. an emerging network of federated networks, all interoperable, thereby marginalising the walled garden silos of monopolistic data-extracting megacorps. HT: Paulo Amoroso ↩︎

    Can you make your autobiography out of hashtags?

    A yellow stencil on a road surface reads: #hashtag Image credit[^1]

    The hashtags of a cyberneticist

    In 1963 Ross Ashby, the British cyberneticist and inventor of the automatic homeostat, engraved a tiny schnapps glass with a list of things his wife liked. He called this gift A Cup of Happiness from Ross to Rosebud.

    When I read the tiny spiral writing engraved on that glass it seemed like a very personal version of the hashtags by which, sixty years later, people on Mastodon or other social networking sites introduce themselves. But they are also a rather touching distillation of the couple’s life together.

    Since reading this, I’ve been over-thinking what hashtags I might use for this purpose, and Ross Ashby’s attempt has inspired me. Not that my hashtags would be anything like these, but their bourgeois English everyday intimacy does have a certain kind of charm. As a historical document the list fairly oozes ‘mid-century anti-modern’! Here are the items, in full:

    Jill ~ Pottery ~ Sally ~ TR2 ~ Ruth ~ Arranging flowers ~ Preserved ginger ~ ITMA ~ Shaffers ~ Steven ~ Dinard ~ Tennis ~ Mark ~ May Hill ~ John ~ Merrow Down ~ Richard ~ Lobster ~ Bread making ~ Michael ~ Clive Brook ~ Bear Lake ~ Chas. B Cochran ~ Auctions ~ Wood fires ~ Stratford ~ Terry’s ~ Gardening ~ Cookham ~ Tiddles ~ Repertory ~ Swimming ~ Bingen ~ Green Ridges ~ Sand castles ~ Ewhurst ~ Nov. 1926 ~ Cheltenham ~ Monday Night at Eight ~ Ouray ~ Delphiniums ~ Windon House ~ North Devon ~ Eau de Cologne ~ Dressmaking ~ Rhossilli ~ Tea ~ Palo Alto ~ Hot baths ~ Take it from here ~ Earrings ~ Cornwall ~ Geraniums ~ Painswick ~ Bear Grass ~ Oeufs Mournay ~ Furs ~ Vanilla slice ~ Crème de Menthe ~ Gt. Smith Street. Source

    There are several different ways of reading this list. You can highlight interests:

    Pottery, arranging flowers, tennis, bread making, gardening, swimming

    Or you can name favourite places and houses:

    Shaffers, Dinard, May Hill, Merrow Down, Bear Lake, Stratford, Cookham, Bingham, Ewhurst, Cheltenham, Ouray, North Devon, Rhossilli, Palo Alto, Cornwall, Painswick, Terry’s, Green Ridges (the house they built)

    You can remember favourite people:

    Jill, Sally, Ruth, Steven, Mark, John, Richard, Michael,

    Or shows:

    ITMA, Monday Night at Eight, Take it from Here, Chas. B Cochran (impressario of Cole Porter and Noel Coward musicals)

    Or favourite foods:

    Preserved ginger, lobster, tea, oeufs mornay, vanilla slice, creme de menthe

    Or beloved objects:

    TR2 (the Ashbys' sports car), wood fires, sand castles, delphiniums, eau de cologne, hot baths, earrings, geraniums, bear grass, furs

    Or special moments:

    Nov. 1926, Gt Smith Street (the place in central London where the couple first met)

    According to the Ross Ashby information site, Tiddles was their cat. The rest we have to work out for ourselves.

    What do your own hashtags say about you?

    If you think about your own list of hashtags, I wonder which personal ones you left out, since the Internet doesn’t need to know everything about us (read: has already categorised us to the minutest detail).

    For example, web developer Jeremy Keith has a ‘bedroll’ list on his website of people who have visited his house in Brighton. Who else does this?! Hashtags may be quite generic, but in combination they can tell a unique story.

    Cybernetics revisited

    Clearly no mention of Ross Ashby can go without reference to cybernetics, which is seemingly back in fashion. As the AI revolution takes off there’s a renewed interest in revisiting the aims of the earlier cyberneticians, and to some extent their methods. A new School of Cybernetics has recently opened at the Australian National University (part-funded by Microsoft, Meta and others), with a public exhibition that took place until 2 December 2022. The school is led by Prof Genevieve Bell, a former vice president of Intel.

    The claim is:

    “We focus on systems – rather than specific technologies, or disciplines—as the unit of analysis. Cybernetics offers a way of transcending boundaries, of thinking in systems and ensuring that humans, technology and the physical environment are in the frame as technology advances and transforms the world around us. It is a way to imagine humans steering technical systems safely through the world.”

    And there’s plenty more on what they’re calling ‘the new cybernetics’.

    I can’t help thinking: there’s a lot of politics in who gets to do the steering. The culture of Microsoft and Meta is powerfully to resist being steered, at every possible opportunity, law-suit by law-suit for eternity. Cyberneticist Stafford Beer’s support for the socialist Allende government of Chile is probably not a model they’re all that interested in. But if you are interested in what might have been, you could do worse than listen to Evgeny Morozov’s podcast, The Santiago Boys. I’ve found it fascinating.

    A note on the craft of note-writing

    An fairly new article from Brazil caught my eye, on note-writing as an intellectual craft. It highlights the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s note-making process (he put his many linked notes in a Zettelkasten - an index box).

    Cruz, Robson Nascimento da Cruz, and Junio Rezende. “Note-writing as an intellectual craft: Niklas Luhmann and academic writing as a process.” Pro-Posições 34 (2023).

    Abstract: "Despite numerous indications that academic writing is a means toward intellectual discovery and not just a representation of thought, in Brazil, it is seen more as a product of studies and subjects than an integral part of university education. This article presents note-taking, an apparently simple and supposedly archaic activity, as a way through which academic writing is eminently oriented towards constructing an authorial thought. To this end, we discuss recent findings in the historiography of writing that show note-taking as an essential practice in the development of modern intellectuality. We also present an emblematic case, in the 20th century, of the fruitful use of a note-taking system created by German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. Finally, we point out that the value of note-taking goes beyond mere historical curiosity, constituting an additional tool for a daily life in which satisfaction and a sense of intellectual development are at the center of academic life."

    Yes, Esperanto is idealistic - not that there's anything wrong with that

    The child who learns Esperanto learns about a world without borders, where every country is home.

    Yes, Esperanto is idealistic…

    The Prague Manifesto of the 1996 World Esperanto Congress promoted seven objectives, goals or principles of the Esperanto movement.

    It positioned Esperanto as a movement for:

    • global education
    • effective language learning
    • multilingualism
    • equal treatment regardless of language - language rights
    • language diversity; and
    • human emancipation

    …and what’s wrong with idealism?

    Even without knowing any Esperanto, I applaud these aims. They’re idealistic and so am I. But if the aim is human emancipation, is it possible that the language itself is just a MacGuffin? Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as they’d say on Seinfeld.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is still possible to imagine not only a different language, but a different kind of language - one that by its very existence helps promote the kind of values outlined by the Prague Manifesto.

    If you’re an Esperanto speaker, or if you speak another ‘international auxillary language’, I’d like to know what you think.

    How many books are you reading?

    On Mastodon, Evan Prodromou asked “How many books are you reading?” and I was slightly shocked by the results.

    Only 5% of 569 people said they were reading six or more books. I thought I was quite normal, but it turns out I’m not. Currently I’m officially reading seven books, but that doesn’t include the four books I’ve finished recently that never made it onto the ‘currently reading’ list. Somehow, having a list of books I’m reading makes me want to read different books. I get through about 35-40 a year, which isn’t a terribly low number, so even though I get stuck on some books, seeming to take months to finish them, I still manage to read quite a few.

    Perhaps I’m just starting into my to-be-read pile too early. Maybe I could resist this.

    Actually I don’t think I’m at all normal, but everything I do feels normal. And who am I kidding? I can’t resist starting new books. Can you?

    How to connect your notes to make them more effective

    A linked note is a happy note

    A great strength of the Zettelkasten approach to writing is that it promotes atomic notes, densely linked. The links are almost as valuable as the notes themselves, and sometimes more valuable.

    But once you’ve had an idea and written it down, what is it supposed to link to? Is there a rule or a convention, or do you just wing it?

    A woodblock engraving of Saint Jerome at his study.

    How are you supposed to make connections between your notes when you can’t think of any?

    When I started creating my system of notes I didn’t know how to make these links between my atomic ideas, and this relational way of working didn’t come naturally to me. I would just sit there and think, “what does this remind me of?” Sometimes I’d come up with a new link, but more often than not, I didn’t. The problem is, the Zettelkasten pretty much relies on links between notes. An un-linked note is a kind of orphan. It risks getting lost in the pile. You wrote it, but how will you ever find it again? And if you do somehow stumble upon it again, it won’t really lead anywhere, because you haven’t related it to anything else.

    Fortunately, there are some helpful ways of coming up with linking ideas that can really aid creative thinking and unlock the power of connected note-making.

    Make a path through your notes with the idea compass

    Niklas Luhmann, the sociologist who famously (to nerds) kept a Zettelkasten, didn’t exactly say this, but each atomic note already implies its own series of relations. Each note can be extended by means of the idea compass - a wonderful idea of Fei-Ling Tseng, as follows:

    • N - what larger pattern does this concept belong to?
    • S - what more basic components is this concept made of?
    • E - what is this concept similar to?
    • W - what is this concept different from?

    Notice how the first two questions promote a tree-like hierarchical structure, with everything nested in everything else, while the second two questions promote a fungus-like anti-hierarchical structure, with links that form a rhizome or lattice. Alone, the former structure is too rigid and the latter is too fluid. But put them together and they can be very powerful. The genius of the Zettelkasten system is that it absorbs hierarchical knowledge networks into its overall rhizomatic structure, without dissolving them, and allows new structures to form (Nick Milo helpfully calls these ‘maps of content’).

    Find the larger pattern

    Each atomic idea might be thought of as part of a larger pattern. In a sense, every note title is just an item in a list that forms a structure note at a level above it. Say I write a note on ‘functional differentiation’. I realise that this is just one component of a structure note that also includes ‘social systems’, ‘communication’, ‘autopoeisis’ and so on. I write this list, call it ‘Niklas Luhmann - key ideas’, and link it to my existing note. Now I have some ideas for some more notes to write. But will I write them all? No - I’ll only pursue the thoughts that actually interest me, or seem essential. The rest can wait for another day. Actually, I’m suddenly intrigued by what you could possibly have instead of functional differentiation (i.e. what is this note different from?), so I write a new note called ‘pre-modern forms of social structure’ - and link it back to my ‘functional differentiation’ note.

    Look for the basic components

    Going even further, the atoms, which seemed to be the smallest unit, turn out to be made of sub-atomic particles and so on, all the way down to who knows what (well, particle physicists might know, but I don’t). That means each atomic idea is really just the title of a structure note that hasn’t been written yet. So I take a new note and write: ‘Functional differentiation - the key points’. I imagine this new structure note to be like a top-ten list of important factors, each one ultimately with its own new note - but I’m not going to force myself to write about ten things that don’t matter, just what I find interesting.

    It’s really important that you don’t try to answer all four questions with a new link. You’re not creating an encyclopedia. Instead, you should only make the connections that actually matter to you. The trace of your own inquisitiveness through the material is, in itself, important information. If it doesn’t matter to you, don’t write about it! Since the notes are atomic, and the possible links increase exponentially (?) the possibility space you are opening up is almost infinite and it can feel overwhelming. So just go with the flow. The key is to find your own curiosity and run with it. That way (as I’ve said before):

    • you’ll write worthwhile notes that address your own questions and

    • this hook of curiosity will help you remember as you learn.

    That’s what I’ve been doing this morning. At no point have I stopped to think “what shall I write next?” In this sense, the Zettelkasten is a kind of conversation partner. Niklas Luhmann said he only ever wrote about things that interested him. This seems unlikely until you try it for yourself.

    And if you keep asking yourself these questions, you’ll find that over time the linking starts to come naturally. It will be increasingly obvious to you what relationships matter. The questions in the idea compass will become intuitive and fade into the background. Well, that’s my experience, but YMMV.

    Apply a framework that intrigues you

    Another way of making connections, besides the idea compass, is to apply a conceptual framework (or mental model) that interests you - and see where it leads. Here’s an example: Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects.

    The idea here is that any new technology changes the whole landscape or ecology, by bringing some features into the foreground and pushing others into the background. It’s called a tetrad because there are four questions to ask of a new technology:

    1. What does the medium enhance?

    2. What does the medium make obsolete?

    3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?

    4. What does the medium reverse or flip into when pushed to extremes?

    (This really clicked for me when I puzzled over why my kids don’t use smart phones for talking to people. It seemed crazy to me, but then I looked at question 3 and realised the new technology had retrieved asynchronous communication, which the telephone had previously made obsolete. But I digress.)

    Anyway, I’m suggesting you might be able to take these four questions and ask them of the ideas in your notes. For each atomic note: what does this idea enhance, make obsolete, retrieve, or reverse?

    Another simple but powerful example is Tobler’s law: “I invoke the first law of geography: everything is connected to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things”. What would it be like if you made everything about physical location?

    It’s important to say these are just examples, and they may not work for you. Nevertheless, you may be able to think of frameworks from within your own line of work that allow you to ask a similar set of questions about your ideas. In my experience these frameworks are everywhere and yet are quite under-used.

    This article is a lightly edited version of a Reddit comment.

    More on making notes.

    You might also like to read about how a network of notes is a rhizome not a tree.

    What is the real work of Serendipity?

    Currently reading: The Real Work by Adam Gopnik 📚

    The Real Work is what magicians call ‘the accumulated craft that makes for a great trick’, and the enigmatic S.W.Erdnase was a master. Adam Gopnik’s book on the nature of mastery devotes a whole chapter to him, so I was amused to find him also mentioned on the new series of Good Omens. This is a great example of the chance happening that people often confuse with serendipity. But as Mark De Rond claims serendipity isn’t luck alone. It’s really the relationship between good fortune and the prepared mind:

    “serendipity results from identifying ‘matching pairs’ of events that are put to practical or strategic use.”

    On this account it’s not luck or chance that matters, but the human agency that does something with it. From two chance encounters with S.W. Erdnase that seemed to match, I’ve constructed this short post. In his 2014 article, ‘The structure of serendipity’, De Rond identifies some examples of much more significant serendipity in the field of scientific innovation.

    It strikes me that one significant feature of mastery is to be able to spot a lucky opportunity and then make something of it. The expert can’t help but see it. Everyone else would miss this chance moment, or else be unable to execute the essential implementation.

    Reference: De Rond, Mark. “The structure of serendipity.” Culture and Organization 20, no. 5 (2014): 342-358.

    Ted Nelson's Evolutionary List File

    Rick Wysocki has a great post introducing Ted Nelson’s innovative idea for a new kind of file system. New, at least, in 1965.

    Ted Nelson’s Evolutionary List File and Information Management

    In many ways though, we’re still waiting for this kind of approach to become available.

    The 1965 paper begins with a programmatic statement that has still not been fulfilled:

    “The kinds of file structures required if we are to use the computer for personal files and as an adjunct to creativity are wholly different in character from those customary in business and scientific data processing. They need to provide the capacity for intricate and idiosyncratic arrangements, total modifiability, undecided alternatives, and thorough internal documentation.”

    Ted Nelson, in case you don’t know, was the first person to coin the term ‘hypertext’, and this is the first published reference to hypertext. In his post, Wysocki reflects on the connections across decades between Nelson’s ideas and the contemporary interest in ‘personal knowledge management’ and Niklas Luhmann’s non-hierarchical Zettelkasten system of notes. He sees the Zettelkasten as potentially more creative than many contemporary systems because it doesn’t impose a fixed system of categories from the top down.

    “Creating hierarchies and outlines of information can be useful, but many don’t realize that outlines have to work on existing material; they are not creative practices themselves (Nelson 135b). This is why the common myth we tell ourselves and our students that an outline should be worked on before writing at best makes little sense and at worst is cruel; how can we outline ideas we haven’t created yet?”

    He praises Nelson’s list file approach, where everything is provisional, and can be changed. Fixed categories are out; lists are in. Nelson saw his hypothetical system as a kind of ‘glorified index file’, which is where the connection with Niklas Luhmann’s (quite different) approach comes in. Sadly, most attempts at providing computerised tools for writers have thrown out the affordances that previous analogue systems offered, almost without noticing their loss. Nelson’s ‘Project Xanadu’, notoriously, was never completed. But there are some gains. I’m reminded of TiddlyWiki, in which nearly everything is a list, even the application itself.

    The original paper , ‘Complex Information Processing: A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate’, can be found online as a PDF.

    A Network of notes is a rhizome not a tree

    Richard Giblett's 2008 drawing, graphite on paper, of a mycelium rhizome

    The Zettelkasten is not just an outline

    The Zettelkasten approach to making notes and writing is not the same as creating a standard outline. An outline is basically linear and hierarchical. It’s a tree-like structure. It’s ‘arborescent’. The Zettelkasten on the other hand is a non-linear, non-hierarchical network, that includes hierarchical and linear structures, but is not bound by them. The Zettelkasten is more like a ‘rhizomatic’ structure. It has many connections, but no obvious central trunk. It’s like ginger.

    The Zettelkasten can include outlines

    The process of writing an article or book might well involve preparing an outline (e.g. a table of contents), but this is done from the contents of the Zettelkasten, not directly by the Zettelkasten itself. The idea is for the Zettelkasten to maintain a more fluid structure than a hierarchical outline, to allow idea formation, prior to the composition of a tightly-structured argument. I do have tables of contents, structure notes, ‘maps of content’, hubs, indices, etc. within my Zettelkasten, but ultimately each of these is just another note in the wider network.

    Notes connect in several different ways

    Links can connect notes in all kinds of directions. Niklas Luhmann emphasised this possibility of referral [Verweisungsmöglichkeiten]:

    “When there are multiple options you can solve the problem by placing the note wherever you want and create references to capture other possible contexts.” - Luhmann, Communication with Zettelkasten

    Consider too Daniel Lüdecke’s presentation on Zettelkasten structure PDF. This clearly shows what Luhmann did and didn’t do (according to Lüdecke at least - see especially slide 31 or thereabouts).

    Avoid premature closure

    A finished piece of work such as a book or article is fixed. Its structure is basically final. This is not true of your notes. They are still fluid, still open to shuffling and re-shuffling. The Zettelkasten’s adaptive structure is confirmed by Schmidt’s summary:

    “At first glance, Luhmann’s organization of his collection appears to lack any clear order; it even seems chaotic. However, this was a deliberate choice. It was Luhmann’s intention to “avoid premature systematization and closure and maintain openness toward the future”. A prerequisite for a creative filing system, Luhmann noted, is “avoiding a fixed system of order”. He pinpoints the disadvantages that come with one of the common systems of organizing content in the following words: “Defining a system of contents (resembling a book’s table of contents) would imply committing to a specific sequence once and for all (for decades to come!)”. His way of organizing the collection, by contrast, allows for it to continuously adapt to the evolution of his thinking.” - Johannes F.K. Schmidt. ‘Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine’, in Cevolini, Alberto.; Forgetting Machines : Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe. Brill, 2016. Ch. 12, p. 300. PDF

    A disclaimer

    Your mileage may vary. When turning your note-work into a network, do what works for you, not what worked for a dead German sociologist.

    See also:

    Walter Benjamin on the obsolete book

    “Already today, as the current scientific mode of production teaches, the book is already an obsolete mediation between two different card file systems. For everything essential is found in the index box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar who studies it assimilates it in his own card file.”

    “Und heute schon ist das Buch, wie die aktuelle wissenschaftliche Produktionsweise lehrt, eine veraltete Vermittlung zwischen zwei verschiedenen Kartotheksystemen. Denn alles Wesentliche findet sich im Zettelkasten des Forschers, der’s verfaßte, und der Gelehrte, der darin studiert, assimiliert es seiner eigenen Kartothek."

    Walter Benjamin - Attested Auditor of Books, in One Way Street (1928) 💬


    Was the book really already obsolete in 1928, as the German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin claimed?

    If so, it has nevertheless enjoyed a long and distinguished afterlife. And Benjamin’s sly reference to what ‘the current scientific mode of production’ teaches, may suggest a certain irony in his claim.

    But the real irony is that the card index was sooner for obsolescence than the book. During the 1980s and accelerating into the 1990s millions of index cards were thrown out, to be replaced with computer databases. Despite a very niche resurgence of interest in the quaint technologies of the ‘Zettelkasten’ (German for ‘index card box’, there’s no real sign of a come-back. The book, meanwhile, has been assailed mightily by the e-book, but as Monty Python fans would say: “It’s just a flesh wound”.

    However, another way of viewing this technological transition would be to say that the card index, in the new form of the electronic database, has utterly triumphed. Now everything is just the front-end of a database, including books.

    A cardboard box on the street, containing a set of card index drawers for disposal. An attached hand-written note says: Rubbish - please clear away.


    Benjamin, W. (2016[1986]) One Way Street, Trans. E. Jephcott. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. P. 43.


    Cited in Stop Taking Regular Notes; Use a Zettelkasten Instead - Hacker News

    See also: Researching Benjamin Researching

    Thoughts are nest-eggs - Thoreau on writing

    In October 1837 the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson prompted the twenty-year-old Henry David Thoreau to start writing a journal.

    “‘What are you doing now?’ he asked. ‘Do you keep a journal?’ So I make my first entry to-day.”

    Thoreau finished up with fourteen full notebooks: seven thousand pages, and two million words. Small fragments can add up to an awful lot. From these fragments he constructed pretty much all of his completed works. What began as jottings ended up as mature reflections.

    He claimed his disconnected thoughts provoked others, so that ‘thought begat thought’.

    Thoreau wrote in his journal:

    “To set down such choice experiences that my own writings may inspire me – and at least I may make wholes of parts.

    Certainly it is a distinct profession to rescue from oblivion and to fix the sentiments and thoughts which visit all men more or less generally. That the contemplation of the unfinished picture may suggest its harmonious completion. Associate reverently, and as much as you can with your loftiest thoughts. Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is a nest egg – by the side of which more will be laid. Thoughts accidentally thrown together become a frame – in which more may be developed and exhibited. Perhaps this is the main value of a habit of writing – of keeping a journal. That so we remember our best hours – and stimulate ourselves. My thoughts are my company – They have a certain individuality and separate existence – aye personality. Having by chance recorded a few disconnected thoughts and then brought them into juxtaposition – they suggest a whole new field in which it was possible to labor and to think. Thought begat thought.” – Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, January 22, 1852.

    The writer, according to Thoreau, doesn’t have a privileged position in relation to ideas or experiences. Everyone has the same access to their “sentiments and thoughts.” But the writer’s special task is to record them.

    Thoreau’s meticulous editing process moved from raw field notes, to his journal, to lectures, to essays, and from there to published books. Walden, for example, was published after seven drafts, which took the author nine years to complete.

    “The thoughtfulness and quality of his journal writings enabled him to reuse entire passages from it in his lectures and published writings. In his early years, Thoreau would literally cut out pages or excerpts from the journal and paste them onto another page as he created his essays.” - Thoreau’s Writing - The Walden Woods Project

    This pretty much sums up the Zettelkasten approach to note-making for me. Thoreau lays out a simple process for “fixing” one’s thoughts in writing and for making something of them.

    • Record your thoughts, one by one.
      • “Each thought that is welcomed and recorded is a nest egg…”
    • Build up a collection of notes, without worrying about whether they are coherent.
      • “…by the side of which more will be laid.”
    • Connect your notes, creating a dense network of association.
      • “Thoughts accidentally thrown together become a frame in which more may be developed and exhibited
    • Construct meaning from your previously disconnected thoughts
      • “Thought begat thought.”

    Note that the thoughts don’t necessarily follow on from one another. The very next idea Thoreau noted in his journal is on a completely different subject: the colour of the winter sun not long before dusk.

    Someone who has found their own distinctive approach to writing that seems to echo that of Thoreau is Visakan Veerasamy. He lives in the 21st Century, not the Nineteenth, and instead of a cabin in the woods he probably has a laptop in a cafe. Instead of field notes he writes using tweets and threads, which he then links together in a dense network of thought.

    “I’ve basically taught myself to manage my ADHD with notes and threads."- Visakan Veerasamy

    What calls Visakan to mind as I reflect on Thoreau’s writing practice is the sense they both seem to share of the seriousness of the practice of making something from nothing by writing short notes in a journal. Visakan says something of which I’m sure both Thoreau and Emerson would have approved:

    in a way journaling for yourself is a radical act! It’s an act of self-ownership, self-education. It’s about setting your own curriculum, defining your own worldview, deciding for yourself what is important. I don’t think this should be outsourced to others.

    People tend to think of writers like Thoreau as immensely successful. True he became a popular speaker, but Thoreau was not a successful writer, at least not in his lifetime.

    “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers [1849] was initially an abysmal failure. Henry was forced to take back the books that were not sold, totalling 706 out of the 1,000 originally printed. Writing humorously of the event in his journal, he quipped, “I have now a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, over seven hundred of which I wrote myself” (Thoreau 459). Walden [1854], in contrast, was a relatively successful book, though it took most of the rest of Thoreau’s life to sell the 2,000 books of the first edition.” – Thoreau’s Writing - The Walden Woods Project

    This knowledge inspires me to write without too much concern for the outcome, and to focus instead on those aspects of the process that lie within my control - recording my thoughts and like Thoreau turning them into nest eggs.


    The Journal

    Thoreau, Henry David. 2009. The Journal, 1837-1861. Edited by Damion Searls. New York: New York Review Books.

    Thoughts as nest eggs

    Thoreau SubReddit

    Image of Thoreau suitable for use on currency

    Image of Henry David Thoreau, suitable for use on currency.

    Gaslit by machinery that calls itself a person

    “I’m Bard, your creative and helpful collaborator. I have limitations and won’t always get it right, but your feedback will help me improve.”

    Let’s be clear. There’s nobody home. There is no first person singular in this introduction from Google’s new Large Language Model interface. We’re being gaslit. There is no “I”, only a complex, inhuman system of computer servers spread across anonymous data centres, dotted around the globe. Yet this is what the system is now trying to pass off as a personality.

    There’s been a lot of talk about pronouns, and these pronouns are just wrong. The “I” here is entirely phony. It’s not phony in the way it was in the movie, Her, where the gullible introverted guy believes he has a unique and specially intimate relationship with the talking computer, only to realise it’s been multitasking with thousands of lonely gullible men at the same time.

    No. It’s much worse.

    Google’s Bard, Chat GPT and the rest of the so called AIs, are no more individual people than a beehive in a raincoat is a person.

    Or even less. At least the bees are alive. The AI processes aren’t alive. And they don’t have any kind of personality except for marketing purposes. We need to resist and reverse the metaphors that trick us into thinking otherwise. Why? Because they’re simply not true. And what do you call it when someone insists on maintaining and extending an untruthful description of reality, when they know exactly what they are doing? In the old days we used to name that for what it is: a lie. And perhaps it’s not too late to recognise this lie now.

    A computer server cabinet in the dark. Photo by <a href="">Taylor Vick</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

    How to be interested in everything

    A Day With Thomas Edison - a still from a 1922 movie.

    Thomas Edison claimed he was interested in everything

    “One day while Mr. Edison and I were calling on Luther Burbank in California, he asked us to register in his guest book. The book had a column for signature, another for home address, another for occupation and a final one entitled ‘Interested in’. Mr. Edison signed in a few quick but unhurried motions… In the final column he wrote without an instant’s hesitation: ‘Everything'”. - Henry Ford on Thomas Edison. Quoted by John Naughton

    It’s all very well to believe that everything interests you, but what does that mean in practice?

    If you really were interested in everything, how would you get anything done? Each new thing you encountered would surely distract you from your previous interest, and you’d end up surrounded by a heap of unfinished projects. But Thomas Edison, the prolific inventor, had a heap of finished projects - innovative products ready for the market and ready to transform society. More than 1000 US patents were filed under his name, including some of the greatest inventions of all time.

    But when nothing prevents you from chasing a new interest, how do you stay focused for long enough to complete the work in front of you?

    You need a system

    What was Thomas Edison’s system for staying on track? He was clearly very effective, so he must have been able to harness his many diverse interests to produce outcomes. How did he do it? How did he avoid ‘shiny object syndrome’?

    Edison recorded everything meticulously. He used notebooks and legers extensively and he encouraged his laboratory workers to do the same. The resulting mountain of notes is a treasure trove for understanding where Edison’s ideas came from and how they developed over time. In their day, these records were mainly used to ensure patents could be registered and defended. Now though, up to five million pages of Edison’s massive work can be studied online through the Edison Project at Rutgers University.

    For individuals today, without a team of engineers behind them, but with the amazing advantage of Twenty-first century technology, being interested in everything is a great opportunity, if only we can harness it. Then like Edison, we can happily admit that we’re interested in everything, and put our diverse interests to work.

    Publish small fragments to create a larger whole

    According to Cory Doctorow, the prolific author and tech activist, blogging (or whatever you want to call it this week) allows you to write simple fragments each day about what interests you today, and to publish it, quite without friction. Over time, Doctorow attests, these small fragments coalesce, and begin to add up to something more substantial.

    the traditional relationship between research and writing is reversed. Traditionally, a writer identifies a subject of interest and researches it, then writes about it. In the (my) blogging method, the writer blogs about everything that seems interesting, until a subject gels out of all of those disparate, short pieces.

    Blogging isn’t just a way to organize your research — it’s a way to do research for a book or essay or story or speech you don’t even know you want to write yet. It’s a way to discover what your future books and essays and stories and speeches will be about.

    Mattias Ott has more to say about this process, and if you read German, there’s even more.

    It’s still just up to you

    You might well be interested in everything, but the bottleneck all your interests must pass through is you. The measure of your note-taking and writing system is the extent to which it helps you make sense of your diverse interests in a way that communicates meaningfully to yourself and/or to others. Publishing small fragments as you go, which then add up to larger pieces is a way forward that just wasn’t possible in Edison’s day, but is easily available online now to anyone who wants to pursue it.

    Let's have another new logo

    Matti is unimpressed that the notetaking app Obsidian has a new logo.

    Change. It happens all the time. Thunderbird has a new logo too (and for that matter so do Porsche, Jaguar/Land Rover, and NYC - like I said, happens a lot).

    In general I don’t care, but you could claim this is really Obsidian’s first branding exercise. The OG logo was just pulled off an indifferent set of icons for RPGs. It was barely even a branding exercise back then, so maybe they’re justified in finally giving it a bit more thought now.

    Six  Role Playing Icons by Chanut. C.C. by 3.0

    I’m pretty sure top right is someone who hates the Firefox logo enough to set fire to it, but not enough to drop it.

    Perhaps it’s like army parades. I mean, if the troops can march in time there’s a chance they’ll also fight OK. And if not, then not. Same with your app’s logo.1 If you can’t design a good logo then what’s the actual product going to be like?

    Signalling seems to matter.

    Although now that I’ve said all this, some exceptions are popping into mind. That arbitrary traffic cone logo of VLC, is one. Terrible logo, but very useful app. Or the equally arbitrary mitsudomoe logo of OBS Studio - also a worthwhile app, all the same. And I really like the TiddlyWiki app, even though everything about its branding is confused and underwhelming, imho. Meanwhile, until now Obsidian the app also seems to have been performing better than Obsidian the logo.

    Now these have all been passion projects made by people who seem really to value the product and the community that uses it. So perhaps updating the logo is a signal, as Matti suspects, that the focus may be moving away from the users and towards some other target - investors, shareholders, purchasers, who knows?

    I’ll make one exception, though. Whatever the real reason for the change, the Thunderbird logo absolutely did need a re-vamp, since the old one does look exactly like an envelope wearing a wig.

    But how come I only just noticed this when they mentioned it on their blog? Once you’ve seen it you can’t un-see it.

    The Thunderbird logo looks like a blue wig on an envelope.

    1. OK, they’re not the actual same, it’s just a hyperbolic simile. Or is it metaphorical hyperbole? ↩︎

    The lost index cards of Harold Innis

    Chris Aldridge has discovered yet another writer who used index cards to construct an extensive body of work from smaller pieces. This practice is often referred to as keeping a Zettelkasten, whether or not the owner was actually German.

    The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis (University of Toronto Press, 1980) reproduces an edited version of the typescript Innis, an economic historian, made of his original index cards.

    Chris wonders if the index cards themselves might be re-issued for interested readers.

    While I appreciate the published book nature of the work, it would be quite something to have it excerpted back down to index card form as a piece of material culture to purchase and play around with. Perhaps something in honor of the coming 75th anniversary of his passing?

    I guess such a work might look something like the 138-index-card edition of Nabokov’s unfinished novel, The Original of Laura, which Chip Kidd designed; or his dream diary, constructed from 118 index cards and published with some images of the original notes as Insomniac Dreams.

    Sadly, a new edition such as this seems unlikely. That’s because according to the Introduction of the Idea File, Innis himself had around 1,500 of his index cards transcribed to 339 typed and numbered sheets of paper. And the cards themselves were lost, it seems, so I’m not holding my breath. However, it’s always possible that some interpid researcher might investigate the archives1 and discover them hidden away there one day. Stranger things have happened.

    “The early history of the material that came to be called the Idea File is obscure. Innis’s son, Donald, recalls that his father used to keep notes on card files, and that there were, at one point, about eighteen inches of white cards, with another five or so inches of white cards containing an index. This index, according to Donald Innis constituted ‘a cross referencing system so that one idea might be referred to under several headings and vice-versa’. These cards appear to have been in manuscript. However, at some point or points, Innis had these notes typed on sheets of paper, and near the end of his life collected the typed notes into one collation which he numbered consequently from 1 to 339.

    The cards themselves appear to be lost. It is possible that they still existed at Innis’s death, for there is a second typed version of part of the Idea File. What might have happened is that in the process of preparing Innis’s posthumous material for limited circulation, a typist began working from the cards; then, during the typing, the family discovered the typed version and stopped the retyping.”

    I’ve gleaned a few ideas from all this.

    First, cross-referencing matters. Innes kept a very extensive index to his cards: 5 inches of index to 18 inches of actual notes. This means his ideas were probably extensively cross-referenced. Makes me think no amount of cross-referencing is too much, if you feel like doing it. But also: don’t get obsessive. Life’s too short to cross-reference everything.

    Second, I’m wondering about longevity of work. It really seems like the original notes on index cards were lost. This is such an interesting feature of the resurgence of interest in the working methods of writers and scholars. Is the ‘finished product’ - book or article - really more important and permanent than the supposedly transient and disposable noted from which it was created? And what happens to the ‘Nachlass’ in the age of digitization? Is it both eternal and wipeable at the same time?

    Third, the meaning is in the links, but the links are fragile. Given the interlinking of the original notes and their subsequent disappearance, it’s fairly clear that the published ‘idea file’ has lost a significant part of its meaning, since that meaning resides in the links between ideas, not just in the ideas themselves.

    Fourth, I noticed that Innis’s notes were often very short. Sometimes just a sentence or two, with compressed, abbreviated syntax. It reminds me of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms, many of which fall slightly flat as prose. Here’s an example. I just wonder what it used to link to:

    “University presidents giving each other degrees. A university not an institution designed to that end, or to give members of boards of governers degrees.”

    I really appreciate looking into the working practices of writers like this. No doubt there are many more such examples to be found and explored.

    1. Manuscript Collection #845, Innis Papers, Archives of the University of Toronto, Thomas Fisher Library, Box 8 ↩︎

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