It was the first time a professor invited me home. I had approached Dr. S— during his office hours to ask for a reading list. Could he tell me, please, one hundred books that would give me a grounding in world history? His response was to rise from his chair, remove the sign he kept outside his door to indicate that he was available to students, and invite me to his house for tea.
Dr. S— taught history, and he was the only professor whose lectures were spectacles worth attending even if you weren’t in his class. He taught without notes, seating himself below the amphitheater of expectant faces and launching into exactly 90 minutes of sparkling anecdote, told with precise dates and names and with a natural storyteller’s flair for the phrase, the punch line, the sensual detail, arranged to illustrate larger trends about the period we were studying. His goal, he liked to say, was to tell a good story while conveying the underlying complexity of history.
He lived on the outskirts of town. As he drove me there, he told me that he and his wife felt the pressure of their teaching-heavy schedules. They were both getting old; each had ambitious scholarly books they wanted to write, but they had begun to fear that the pressure of medical problems — which, because they lived in the US, were turning into financial problems — would keep them teaching too many extra classes ever to finish their projects; they had foregone children to write their books, but even so, some days it seemed hopeless. No one had ever told me that life can sour the high-minded dreams of an intellectual. I began to feel guilty for taking up his time.
We arrived, and immediately I was stunned into silence by his library. My father, a scholarly pastor, had the largest personal library I had previously encountered, but Dr. S— took book ownership to a new level. House and library were coextensive. The books began in the entryway, continued down every hall, lined all four walls of the living room, the kitchen, and, I could only assume, the bedroom, basement, and closets. They certainly lined the bathroom. I pretended to need it, just so I could check.
Dr. S— made us tea. We took our cups — with saucers and tiny spoons and sugar in cubes — into the living room. I was told to sit on the couch. I did so, perching in the exact center as if I might destroy the room’s atmosphere by touching anything. He settled into his reading chair, a piece of furniture evidently much used, creased where he sat, dimpled and shiny on the arms where he rested his elbows to read. A strange wooden contraption hung from the wall beside him. Later, I realized it was a hanging desk which he could pull into place near his right hand to take notes without leaving his chair. The room smelled of paper and ink and tea.
What did I want to talk about? He asked.
Tasting my first sour taste of imposter syndrome, I half-whispered a repetition of my request about a book list.
He nodded thoughtfully and his face fell into an expression I recognized from his classes.
He grew up in a house without books, he told me. He got a scholarship to a university in the UK and realized, the moment he arrived, that every single one of his classmates had a leg up on him. He would have to read fast to catch up, and he would have to retain what he read. From his first semester in university he made a habit of writing a one line summary of each page he read, and he had never stopped. He collected these summaries and cross-referenced them. He didn’t have a good memory and he didn’t read fast, he said, but he was diligent. His notes, a continuously evolving mass over the last fifty years of his life, were downstairs, in over a hundred boxes. They were his life’s work. I might think books or teaching were a scholar’s work, he said, but it was actually reading and taking notes, imposing the will and unity of a single perspective on a vast quantity of argument and information.
I should begin now, he told me, while I was still young, still thirsty, and capable of doing things like asking for 100 books about world history. I had an advantage on him, he said, because I used a computer, and if he could do his life’s research over again with a computer he could have done twice as much. Perhaps he would not now be struggling to finish writing his books before he died. He leaned forward and fixed me with a stare that paralyzed every muscle in my undergraduate body. I felt the world’s spotlight on my startled features. It matters less what you read, he told me, emphasizing each word, than how you take notes. He told me I would pursue various enthusiasms in the course of my life, that sometimes I would read according to a program, often for pleasure; that sometimes I would inhale trash and sometimes chew my way through rebarbative but rewarding feasts of scholarship. I should follow my desires in this regard. It didn’t matter, it would all work out: as long as I knew how to take notes.
Later he gave me the book list I had asked for. I lost it a few years later. But I never lost the memory of Dr. S— telling me to take notes the right way.
But what way is that? Scholars today do have the benefit of computers, of a portable, manipulable, word-searchable exo-brain. But very few of us, in my experience, have a system for taking and organizing our notes that replicates an organic, accessible database like the one Dr. S— had made for himself with slips of paper and boxes. What is the use of masses of material, boolean searchable like Google, acquired aimlessly and stored in an unstructured mass? I have reams of notes, especially from grad school. To ask them a question, so to speak, I would have to read through them all again, excerpting what I need. Word search is a weak substitute for information architecture, like having a memory that can only be activated by precise repetitions of trigger sensations.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Traditions of notebook-keeping were passed down through generations before computers. People kept personal florilegia, common place books, zibaldones, zettelkasten, files of index cards. I remember being taught, in the middle grades, to write quotations on index cards and save them up to use when writing papers. This teaching had faded out by the time I was in highschool and I never heard its like in college. As far as I know, no specific way of using computers has replaced the index card system as a widespread method for organizing one’s research (though I know young historians who have sophisticated systems). I suspect that the advent of computers as the obvious tools for scholarship brought with it a vast destruction of research practices, practices for organizing and accessing the fruit of research. We have better tools, but the best methods for using them have not been widely disseminated. Or if they have, I at least missed the memo.
Of the huge quantity of notes I took over the past decade — I summarized, excerpted, and commented on my reading of about 150 books a year, or about 1500 books since I began to count when I was nineteen, in addition to an uncounted mass of journal articles and essays and short stories — the only really usable portion has the helpful shape it does because I had to organize it in order to use it in my dissertation. The topics and structure of my dissertation imposed order on the research I did for it. Sheer necessity taught me things no professor ever did.
Of the best organized young scholars I know, most structure their notes in that way: in relation to publication. You research toward books and articles. The problem with this exigent architecture is that it can accomplish its purpose without sprouting the organic interconnections or categories that grow up in the less purposeful accretion of a zettelkasten, zibaldone, or commonplace book.
Many young professors (in my former discipline, philosophy, at least) continue to milk the research done for their dissertation for additional articles, until they have to pivot to a new project, formulated in their heads as the next book, for which they conduct new research. Their notes have no afterlife, except for teaching. Those notes were structured to provide exactly the connections necessary for a specific project, and without the tension that project gave them, they are more or less useless. These notes have little resemblance to, for instance, to the generative archive recommended by C. Wright Mills in “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.”
Notes, properly taken and steadily accumulated, should be impossible to “exhaust.”
Once you state the problem clearly to yourself, the solution becomes obvious. I wish I had stated the problem to myself much earlier. What you do is this:
Using some electronic database — perhaps a personal wiki, or a bibliography manager, or even a folder of text files — you begin to compile your research in items of the minimum semantic content. “One thought, one note.”
You tag each item with all the keywords you can think of. You tag it by author and source text if it’s a quotation, by topic and date and controversy and any other relevant classification you can think of.
You put your own thoughts in the same database, and you tag them the same way. When an old thought inspires a new thought, or you change your mind about something, you make a hard link between the note expressing the old thought and the note expressing the new thought.
In the end, as your research grows, you have a mass of notes, on your thinking and on your reading, that can be approached in three ways: by following the hard links between notes, which trace the development of your thinking; by viewing all items collected under a tag or set of tags, which reveals unexpected organic relationships; and by text search, that genuinely computer-specific innovation. These are the three pathways by which a modern scholar can revisit, tour, inspect their research.
I’ve arrived at this obvious solution after leaving academia. I’m a writer now rather than a scholar, a trafficker in belles-lettres and literature rather than monographs and journal articles. And that change in my role has implications for my note-taking.
For one thing, the moment of artistic creativity is quite different — in my case — than the moment of scholarly creativity. It is more inward, more immanent to my biological brain. Memorizing a poem will do more for me than preserving it in a file tagged with lots of relevant keywords, because what I want from it is for it to spontaneously occur to me as I brush up against experiences or texts that could remind me of it. It’s easy to give up on this kind of internalization of research, so to speak, because computers and the internet have made it so easy to find back again anything we’ve read before. But digital recall is different:
The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”
Additionally, I have become more and more interested in my reading as a practice with goods internal to the process. I mean, I suppose, that I’m getting back to the sheer contemplative delight that books gave me before I became I scholar who saw them as the means to an end. Once upon a time, they were life. I would return to my favorite passages to re-experience them. The discovery of a new book that resembled an old book I had loved was the most precious discovery possible. And it seems to me the reader’s life becomes exponentially richer with the increase of possibilities for allusion, recognition, memory, interpretation. Note-taking is not a practice exclusive to productive intellectuals, to those in the business of making new texts. It is also part of the secret inner life of any serious reader. But the ideal scholarly database of notes I described above wouldn’t be much help, perhaps, to the serious reader.
Memorization would probably be the best thing. Also, if it’s economically and practically feasible, the possession of a large physical library of treasured texts, with marginalia constituting an immanent database of notes. And, a friend recently pointed out to me, conversation constitutes a kind note-taking. We remember better the ideas and texts we have discussed with other people. Conversation, perhaps, constitutes the oldest form of note-taking. Many readers also keep personal journals in which notes about what they’re reading share the page with reflections on their own lives.
What would it mean to best make use of new technologies in this context? How might a computer improve the memorization, immanent marginalia, discussion, and private note-taking of the serious reader? The answer is less obvious to me than it was in the case of scholarship.
But I can’t get Dr. S—’s urgent words out of my head. I still believe them.
It matters less what you read than how you take notes.