Tinderbox Forum

Good reading about zettelkasten

For a project, I’m looking for insightful reading about Zettelkasten and their uses. Ideally, reading that looks beyond the mechanics of the card file to reflect on what it is for, and how it relates to other systems and institutions.


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Sönke Ahrens has just published the second edition of his book. I‘m in the process of reading it and think you would enjoy it. It’s more about the process than the technicalities which I think should appeal to your interests. It’s called “How to take smart notes”, the first ed. was widely recommended and it’s available on Kindle - here is a link:


I’m reading the first edition; wish I’d known about the second!

Yes, great book. This site has some useful info: https://zettelkasten.de/. They offer Zettlekasten coaching, perhaps you can reach out to them.


I recently found out there was a similar system that predates Luhmann’s system by a couple of decades. The system since named passagenwerk used by Walter Benjamin for collecting and making sense of information about the Arcades (passages) in Paris in the early 20 century. His work expanded beyond the Arcades as it progressed.

I’ve since bought the book, but have only started it. It seems interesting, but not sure how much of Benjamin’s system it details.


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Details of Benjamin’s note-taking method are scattered through the translation of Arcades. The Translator’s Forward has some notes. I used Buck-Morss as a guide to Benjamin’s method when I started dipping into him. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought): Buck-Morss, Susan: 9780262521642: Amazon.com: Books. Buck-Morss was helpful in getting a sense of how the collection came to organized under heads. Her work is nearly as long as The Arcades, and just as intriguing.

Reading the arcades notes themselves gives a good sense of Benjamin’s method. The Arcades is extensive: it’s a large collection of quotations from sources and Benjamin’s comments on them. The topics and how the notes were gathered gives insight into his method: folded sheets of paper (convolutes), organized over time into topics, with some rudimentary linking or cross-referencing.

Heather Marcelle Crickenberger wrote a dissertation on The Arcades. I read parts of it years ago. I can’t find it on the web anymore but there might be some leads to it at The Story of the Arcades Project Project – The Arcades Project & The Rhetoric of Hypertext.

Hope this helps.


With reference to Steve Johnson mentioned above:

But I want to focus on a later stage in the creative workflow, one we haven’t yet covered in this series, and one that is central to both the passagenwerk and the slip-box: the crucial process whereby isolated fragments and hunches coalesce into higher-level ideas. It’s important to capture as much as possible of what you read or think, but part of your workflow has to allow for the emergence of new concepts or perceptions, wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts. In Benjamin’s language, you need a technique for turning hunches into convolutes.

“Turning hunches into convolutes” sounds like abductive reasoning or abductive analysis. It’s the kind of framework that ethnographers and other qualitative theorists tend to work with, drawn from C S Pierce on semiotics. A pragmatic college-level intro by Tavory and Timmermans I’ve used, deals with method closely: Abductive Analysis.

I like good hunch.


Thank you @mcmorgan !

Y’r welcome. Try “Convolute N” in Arcades for paths into method when you get a chance. Mind the rabbits going down.

Say something about the method of composition itself: how everything one is thinking at a specific moment in tiule must at all costs be incorporated into the project then at hand. Assume that the intensity of the project is thereby attested, or that one’s thoughts, from the very beginning, bear this project within them as their telos. So it is with the present portion of the work, which aims to characterize and to preserve the intervals of reflection, the distances lying between the most essential parts of this work, which are turned most intensively to the outside. [Nl,3]

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I’m quite late to the party here, but since I have the first edition, I went to see what might be different in the second. Not much, it seems. Saved me $10! (And I’m not enamored of the book anyway.)

There are a few changes compared to the original 2017 edition. Firstly, I corrected a few mistakes some observant readers pointed out to me. In one case, I had a metaphor from chemistry wrong; in the other case, I embarrassingly repeated a story about pencils in space without realizing that it was debunked as an urban myth long ago. Thanks to everyone who wrote to me kindly and pointed that out! Along with some typos, there is actually a third small factual mistake I corrected, but as nobody has noticed it yet, let’s pretend there was none. Secondly, I added a small appendix, which I hope will give you a better idea of what Luhmann’s Zettelkasten looked like and what is crucial to keep in mind when we use digital tools. The last addition is a table I often use in talks and which gives you an overview of the main differences between this approach and the traditional way of writing and note-taking.

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Just wanted to second @satikusala’s suggestion for zettelkasten.de as a resource to definitely spend some time with – both the blog and the forum. The “Getting Started” page is a good place to get started. There is plenty of talk about the mechanics but also plenty of talk beyond that.

Also, though the Ahrens book is worth reading, do note that not everyone on zettelkasten.de is a fan (see this recent blog post by a forum member).

Good luck with your project, Mark!

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There is also Johannes Schmidt’s work, with an inside view:

Schmidt, Johannes F. K. ‘Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: Thinking Tool, Communication Partner, Publication Machine,’ in Forgetting Machines: Knowledge Management Evolution in Early Modern Europe , edited by Alberto Cevolini, 289–311 (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

Schmidt, Johannes. ‘Niklas Luhmann’s Card Index: The Fabrication of Serendipity.’ Sociologica 12(1) (2018): 53–60.