In Dunde39, we explored not only the beauty of stupidity, but of breaking down ideas to core units so that we can mix and match them with other ideas. It is, after all, how we build houses. Brick by brick.
A key component is to ensure these ideas remain viable entities in and of themselves, so that we can rethink them. And this is where a system comes into play. There must be a place for the notes to live and breathe. Ryan Holiday uses note cards in what he calls his 'common place book'. This is not a new concept.
The earliest reference I have found of a 'zettelkasten' comes from 18th Century writer Jean Paul who wrote books from his compiled excerpts of ideas. Many writers do this. They take notes and then recompile them into new pieces of writing.
An easy way of picturing how this works (excuse the pun) is to look at how Claude Monet created his masterpieces.
A central tenet of impressionism was to capture the light as a way of seeing anew the landscape. There will never be that same light falling in that way across the River Thames or on Parliament House.
Throughout his life, Monet studied the same landscape during different times of day and different seasons. And each time, he created a new impression of what was before him.
Monet, by standing in the same spot and creating completely different paintings proves Heraclitus' statement that “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Impressionism was a direct reaction to the scientific advances in our understanding of how prismatic parts of white light were actually the individual colours.
Painters like Monet aimed to paint the landscape using the individual parts of the light. Instead of mixing blue and yellow together to create green, the painter could place two individual dabs of blue and yellow next to each other to create the 'impression' of green.
And here is Monet's 'broken colour' in action.
Monet is leaving us, as the viewer to create the flower from these broken dabs of paint.
This is how we are to deal with the individual ideas that strike us as interesting. I used to underline those ideas, but they remained where they were. Like tubes of paint, unless we smear them onto the palette, we can't reuse them in new and interesting ways.
And this is the purpose of any form of note-taking. To recombine those ideas, be it 'unit-ideas', or atomic thoughts, zettels or 'broken colours', the note-taking system acts as the palette does for the painter.
By extracting small ideas from the books we read, we allow them to exist in new contexts. This requires a degree of purpose when reading, and of the belief there might be a return-on-investment at a latter point in time from those notes.
Invest in yourself by reading widely and with intent.