3 Working with Ideas

The only true praise is thought. The only thing that can back-bone an essay is thought. Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Nobody ever starts from scratch. 
Sönke Ahrens.

To set the scene and provide a bit of context, I’m going to briefly discuss some details of my personal note-making process. I want to say up front that this is a possible way of making notes, not the only way, because I think a lot of the way you approach any text depends on the reason you’re looking at it in the first place. However, there are good reasons why I want to get to a specific endpoint: Point Notes I can use to further develop a train of thought that will lead to output.

So here’s an example. Historian William Cronon’s big book is called Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Published in 1991, this has become a core text of environmental history that has influenced a generation of scholars. I first read the book in a graduate Environmental History class at the University of Massachusetts, and then I reread it for my comprehensive exams. Since then I’ve read in the book and I’ve assigned chapters to my students. But I haven’t read the whole book cover to cover for a decade. It’s probably time to do that again, and see what I think of it now and what ideas jump out at me today that the previous me passed by.

When I first read the book, I highlighted passages I thought were important, based on whatever I was interested in at the time. Some of the highlights were directed at understanding the author’s argument and his main points, since that was my goal in the first cover-to-cover reading. I wrote a review of the book that discussed and critiqued Cronon’s ideas and methods. Later, I went back looking for particular things such as Cronon’s use of the Central Place theory, of which I was a bit critical. Or details of the growth of the Chicago industries he covers. These details became very important to me, when I was writing my own lectures and a textbook chapter covering these topics. I also mined his endnotes and the bibliography and added a lot of books to my reading list by looking at the things that had influenced Cronon’s thinking on the topic. Later, I returned looking for specific details of the lumber industry as well as the way he tells the story, as I begin thinking about researching and writing more on this topic.

I had not paid extremely close attention to the lumber industry portions of the book in the past, but now that this has become a question I’m actively working on, I discovered new and important information from rereading. The point is that any good book like Nature’s Metropolis includes a lot more information than you are probably going to capture in even a close reading. I think it’s often an issue for people when they first become note-makers: an anxiety about getting the “right” stuff out of a book, or even “all the stuff”. I don’t think this is completely possible, and I think it’s increasingly less possible, the better the book. I might even say the best books are the best books because they stubbornly defy being reduced to a synopsis and some notes. Another way of saying that is, great books have so much in them that many different people with many different interests can all find something they’ll value in their pages.

So let’s jettison the idea that we’re ever going to be able to completely encompass a 250,000-word book in a note! When you think of it that way, it’s a bit absurd, isn’t it? What then is the point of taking notes? It is to enter a relationship with the ideas in a text; potentially one that will expand and deepen over time, as you return to the source with new questions. Not every book will be one you’ll want to have this type of relationship with, of course. There are plenty of sources that only have a couple of things to tell you, to contribute to your project. Or one. Or none at all. That’s mostly a function of your interests and questions. It’s very rare that a book gets out there into the world that has nothing relevant to say to anybody, but your interests may be specific enough that it may have nothing in it you need to know.

When I reread the book again, cover to cover, I might grab a different color highlighter. I’ll try not to be too influenced by my previous highlights, although from time to time I imagine I’ll stop and ask myself why I focused on some lines on a page and not others. There’s an often-repeated claim that Niklas Luhmann rarely returned to texts after once reading them. I suspect he was often looking for particular information when he read an article or a book; I don’t think that having a note-taking system means you will always get everything you need from a text on the first pass through it. If you’re a student and a text has been assigned in a class, there may be a limit to the depth you want to dive into it or the time you want to spend. There may only be some specific questions you’re seeking to answer. Once again, it’s the purpose of picking up the book that determines how you process it.

Neuroscientists have shown that the human mind functions more effectively with (some even say, relies on) what they call “external scaffolding”. Our attention and memory are both limited and are filtered by what seems urgent at the moment. This was originally a survival skill, but it is not always helpful, when we’re trying to develop a complicated train of thought over the long term. And there’s a type of stress called ego depletion that can seem like psychic muscle fatigue, which we can feel when we have big, unresolved problems or questions hanging over our heads. It’s very helpful to have a system that we can trust, where we can break down a project into small, doable chunks and feel confident they aren’t going to fall through the cracks. Just about any project can be broken into small, doable chunks.

Breaking a big project into pieces is important. “Getting Things Done” expert David Allen says it’s impossible to work on a Project; you can only work on tasks that are part of a project. This is a valuable insight that can reduce a lot of anxiety. When I planned my PhD dissertation, I thought of the 300 pages I was going to have to write as about 500 paragraphs. I was relieved, because paragraphs are easy! All I needed was a place to store and organize my notes from all the primary and secondary sources I had accumulated, and line them up with the argument I was making about American History. Somewhere I could trust that they would be safe and I’d be able to find them when I needed them.

The system you use to make and store notes can be digital or physical. I’ve been playing with different apps for over a decade. The ones I used for my dissertation worked, but I’ve tried many new tools since then. Lately, I’ve returned to paper notes and a card catalog. The key, I think, is that you should be able to move your notes around, compare them with each other, try different combinations and orders to see if they help – and then return to where you were without losing valuable information. Paper note cards have all these flexibilities, so I’d suggest beginning with them and then letting your system evolve.

Because highlighting usually happens in the text you are consuming, the first notes you’ll probably write on a card will be Source Notes. These will be a combination of notable ideas from the source and the beginning of your take on them. For example, this was a card I wrote preparing for this project. It is one of those rare times when I actually quoted the source rather than paraphrasing, because I thought it was a powerful statement. It includes the thought I wanted to preserve from the text as well as my reaction to it. As I continue working with my thoughts about how to describe ideas and note-making, I will very rarely rely on quotes, although I have been using a few as epigrams at the beginnings of these chapters (never say never!). More often and more likely, I’ll reformulate ideas into my own words, often even devising new metaphors to describe them. For example, months ago I read an article by Niklas Luhmann in which he said that notes in his file system not well connected by cross-references to other notes tended to never be seen again. They just got lost in the box forever. Over time, this resonated with other things I had been reading about the migrations of prehistoric peoples, from a book on paleogenetics. The result was this next card.


The idea of making these notes is described on these two cards. First, we never have to start from scratch. We don’t need to discover fire, invent language, and organize a society in order to survive. Similarly, we usually don’t need to return all the way to first principles to add to knowledge and contribute insights. What we do need to do is situate our work in a context that allows someone else to understand how our ideas connect to other knowledge. The way we do that is by keeping track of (and documenting clearly) where the ideas we are working with came from. Within our own notes, connections allow the ideas we are developing to survive by interacting with other ideas and remaining part of our train of thought.

The first of these example notes is a Source Note; the second is a Point Note. They both have keywords (“Quote” and “Connection”), the first being a bit vaguer and really less helpful in the long run than the second. A more specific keyword from a Point Note I derive from this card might be “Beginnings”, if I decided to elaborate this idea as a comment on starting a project. Or I might use this source to contribute to another train of thought. In the second case, checking “Connection” in my Index would lead me to this card. I might then compare this thought to others that use the same keyword, to see how it supports or modifies the idea of connection.

You may have noticed that on both of these cards I changed the number, as I improved my system. Rather than rewrite the cards to hide the change, I just replaced the old number with the new. These things happen, occasionally, as you evolve your system. I’ll explain the numbering system in more detail later. Note also that the things that I’m saying about these ideas are completely subjective. They may be valuable or worthless, depending on how well I’ve thought things through. Like the things that jumped out at me from a text that I decided to highlight and make a Source Note from, my conclusions are my own and are based on my own interests and train of thought. There really isn’t any right or wrong answer regarding what you should pursue, other than what interests you and your audience. If you are way off course and making no sense at all, your readers will let you know. Even if that reader is just future-you – and this is one of the benefits of making notes your future self can read!

The basic truth behind this idea of transferring ownership of ideas from our sources to ourselves is that we don’t really own ideas at all. This is not to say that ideas exist independently of the people who think them, in some Platonic world of forms. But it IS to say that it’s extremely rare to have a completely original thought that no one has ever had before. There are about seven billion people on the planet today and since the advent of Homo sapiens an estimated 107 billion people have lived. We learned language as babies, and we absorbed most of what we know about the world from our parents and the people we knew as children. Later we went to schools, read books, and watched screens. We didn’t discover much on our own.

Even if we limit the discussion to the types of knowledge we acquire in school, we’re still standing on the shoulders of others about 99.9% of the time. In many cases we work with these ideas with little thought of their sources. We may call an idea by a name, like the Pythagorean Theorem, but we don’t worry that much about thanking Pythagoras — which is probably just as well, since the same idea is mentioned in the Baudhayana Sulba-sutra from India, which was written centuries before Pythagoras lived. But we do try to be careful with more recent ideas, especially in an academic setting.

Even though we give credit to authors by citing them in footnotes and including them in bibliographies, at its heart the learning process is very much about taking the thoughts of others and making them our own. We collect the ideas that interest us, connect them to other ideas that interest us, and then use them in ways that sometimes create new ideas or things. That may be by using what we know about right triangles to build a stable structure, or it might be by using ideas we discovered in texts to write something “original”.

But what does the word original mean, if we’ve just admitted that we very rarely have a new thought no one has ever had before? A practical definition might include the fact that we have done the work of thinking through a problem and arriving at a solution. We’ve asked ourselves a question (or responded to someone else’s question) with a train of thought that combines elements of information and interpretations we have accumulated, arranged in a way that seems to answer the question (or at least, provides insight into the problem). Some answers may be extremely straightforward, requiring us only to apply data readily at hand. Others may need combinations of ideas from a variety of sources, brought together and interpreted in creative and innovative ways.

Since the interesting and rewarding questions are usually the ones that call for these creative solutions drawing on ideas that may seem hard to imagine combining (until someone does, and then it’s “so obvious”), the better we can become at collecting, understanding, and remembering information, the more likely we are to solve hard problems. The name of the game, then, is mastering the process of grabbing as much information as we can get our hands on, and making it our own. We do this by gradually transferring ownership of these ideas from the authors we read to ourselves by understanding the gist of an idea, paraphrasing it in our own words, and linking (comparing, contrasting) it to other ideas that interest us. These tasks prove (to ourselves and others) that we really understand the idea and make it possible for us to use it when we need it.




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