Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lichtenberg's Wastebook

Johann Georg Lichtenberg, the great German writer of aphorisms, wrote "Merchants have a Waste Book (Sudelbuch, Klitterbuch) into which they inscribe everything they buy and sell (from day to day, everything muddled, with no order; out of this it is transferred to the journal, where everything is more systematic, and finally it comes into a Ledger at double entrance in the Italian manner of book-keeping .. This deserves to be imitated by by scholars. First a book into which I write everything as I see it or as my first thoughts come to me, this can then be transferred to another book, where the materials are more separated and more ordered, and the ledger could then contain the connections and the explanation of the subject in a proper style."

So, conceived of the process that took him from note-taking to a connected text as consisting of three stages:
  • first, capturing or recording things without attention to order or clarity in a notebook

  • second, separating different items, putting them into some order, and re-entering the information it in another book

  • third, formulating the problem and its solution, by giving an explanation that establishes the connection between its "parts"

So, he processed the stuff that he had collected at least twice (or, if you count the first writing down, three times).

We tend to forget that "digesting" the information we gather is important, more important than simoly collecting it. We need to "digest" it, as Bacon said. And our tools can help us in doing so, but they cannot do it for us.

In fact, many people seem to think that they should "automate" and "streamline" their interaction with the material they want to write about. This is counter-productive. You should interact with the materials as much as you can. "Thinking is not the shortest distance between two points" (Hans Blumenberg).

1 comment:

spj said...

I've been looking for a program that would do this, exactly, for years. Haven't found it. Maybe you can help me? What I want sounds very simple to me: a program that is always running, I hit -say- F6 and a window pops up where I can jot a note or copy whatever, and is dismissed (and saved in an Inbox)and by hitting Esc. Later, whenever I have time, I go to the inbox and quickly organize and/or tag each entry. After that, the only thing that would be necessary is a flexible export option to be able to export to any of the fine full-fledged organizers that are available. Thank you.