What if you could hold a conversation with your book notes? This was the idea that first tempted me to try the Zettelkasten Method, developed by Niklas Luhmann in the 1950s.
The basic method is deceptively simple…
The Zettelkasten Method
Here is the Zettelkasten method, in its simplest form:
Assign each index card a unique number.
Write a “nugget” of information on each card.
Cross-reference cards using their unique numbers.
+ a few more nuances:
Title each card to make it easy to see the topic at a glance.
Insert a card between two numbers using alphanumerics (e.g. 1a, 1b, 1c…) or a slash followed by further numbers (e.g. 1/1, 1/2, 1/3…).
Create indexes (or “registers”) that collate multiple cards under a keyword or tag.
This article describes my (physical) implementation of the method. Niklas Luhmann’s Zettelkasten was, of course, more developed and intricate, and tended toward different aims. Please see Further Reading below for more information.
A Brief History of Note-Taking
“Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.” – Ann Blair
The dream of organised book notes has haunted writers and readers for millennia.
In Too Much to Know, Ann Blair details the concerns of scholars facing the flood of information following the invention of the printing press, and the increased availability of books, and of paper. During this period, the art of memory was replaced by the art of excerpting, which consigned information to paper in order to forget rather than to remember it.
Myriorama cards are slices of landscape paintings that can be arranged in any order to form continuous scenes. They were invented in the early 19th century by the French artist, Jean-Pierre Brès, as a genteel amusement and an aid to practice drawing composition.
I first heard Sir Philip Pullman recommend them for writing inspiration in his BBC Imagine interview. They also make an appearance in The Secret Commonwealth! Since I couldn’t find a set to purchase, I did what I usually do: I printed my own. This isn’t the same set that Sir Philip uses (his set has 24 cards according to this article), but it was the only one that I could find available in high resolution. It was digitised, appropriately enough, by the Bodleian Library. The illustrator is John Heaviside Clark. The date is 1824. Here is the original. There are a few other myrioramas in the collection, but they’re either incomplete, or too small to be printed:
This particular set was the first myriorama available in Britain, commissioned by publisher Samuel Leigh. The cards form a rural seaside landscape, with picturesque ruins, thatched cottages, fields, islands, and a lighthouse (flying the Union Jack). Figures in Regency attire are depicted in various activities. There’s a beautiful balance and rhythm to the pictures, and a surprising amount of narrative and descriptive potential, when one looks closely.
There are 16 cards in total, 8 with people, and 8 without. In his advertisement, Leigh boasts that this would allow the player to create an astonishing, 20,922,789,999,000 different scene combinations!
One of Leigh’s innovations was to number each card, allowing you to remember and recreate scenes. If you have difficulty reading the numbers, you can refer to the image files, which are in order.
I recommend taking the files down to your local copy shop to be printed. I asked for mine on heavy, textured cardstock (300gr). The images should be printed at A4 or US Letter sizes WITHOUT being resized (unless you want them to be smaller).
I’ve included an optional design for the back of the cards. The background is larger than the page of cards, and if you ensure that all of the images are centred on the page, then you should have plenty of margin for printer movements.
The saturation will depend on the printer and paper you use. The images also look nice in black and white.
Create a Story with Your Myriorama Cards
These Myriorama cards are way more fun than I’d anticipated! Everyone I’ve shown them to becomes instantly absorbed in putting them in some sort of pleasing order.
They’re also an excellent tool for observation, and if you’re a writer, you can use them to practice your descriptive skills.
I created this 2-page worksheet to help you explore the landscape in your Myriorama cards, and to then create a story with them.