When he died the sociology professor Niklas Luhmann left behind his Zettelkasten, a system of hyperlinked index cards, amounting to ninety thousand paper notes. He credited this system for most of the breakthroughs in his academic career but as a fellow writer I always wondered what sustained him. What kept him writing notes all those years?
As it turns out professors earn their keep through research as well as lecturing so Luhmann always had a professional incentive to grow his garden of ideas. To the best of my knowledge professors are considered eligible for tenure if they publish a certain amount of academic papers per year and Luhmann did just that.
I think it’s harder, though never impossible, to write when it seems like only you care about the writing.
Lila: An Inquiry into Morals is a novel about a writer writing a novel while sailing down the Hudson River with the eponymous Lila in tow. Phaedrus, the main character, coaxes his novel into existence with index cards instead of the traditional notebook or typewriter. As it turns out there’s a method to the madness.
“The reason Phaedrus used slips rather than full-sized sheets of paper is that a card-catalog tray full of slips provides a more random access. When information is organized in small chunks that can be accessed and sequenced at random it becomes much more valuable than when you have to take it in serial form. It’s better, for example to run a post office where the patrons have numbered boxes and can come in to access these boxes any time they please. It’s worse to have them all come in at a certain time, stand in a queue and get their mail from Joe, who has to sort through everything alphabetically each time and who has rheumatism, is going to retire in a few years, and who doesn’t care whether they like waiting or not. When any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is dead.
Some of the slips were actually about this topic: random access and Quality. The two are closely related. Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it.”
Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
When I rummage through the cabinet drawers and archive boxes in my bedroom on a whim I’m often surprised by things I’ve forgotten I had. On my computer, where my files are stored in folders upon folders and I can’t see what they are until I click on them, it’s more difficult to be surprised. Random access and serendipity go hand in hand.