The AdlerNet Guide for Intelligent Readers
Part I: Setting Up
In this article, I will describe how to set up an analog note-taking system for the express purpose of reading and engaging with the classical works of western civilization—specifically, the “Great Books of the Western World.” This 54-60 volume collection (depending on the edition) was originally published by Mortimer Adler and Richard Hutchins in the 1950’s. I’ve owned 2 complete sets over the years but have only recently begun pulling these volumes off my bookshelf with increased regularity and enjoyment. I attribute my new behavior and the improvement in my reading habits overall to a note-taking system I’ve adopted based on Niklas Luhmann’s famed Zettelkasten system. I am also indebted to innovations introduced by Scott Scheper in his version called the “Antinet”. For more context before proceeding, please go back and read my last post if you missed it.
To emphasize my method’s focus on the reading the classics and pay homage to its pipe-smoking guru, I’m calling my version the “Adler Antinet”—or “AdlerNet” for short. Not only will I refer frequently to Dr. Adler’s Great Books collection in the next few posts, but I will also cite advice from his reading guide, “How to Read a Book”. They are described in more detail below and you will want to have both.
What Luhmann’s original Zettelkasten and its modern offshoots all have in common (or should) is that they are “organic and non-linear, even living, approach[es to] note-taking.”1 I have tried to adapt my method so as to produce an “organic and living” conversation with the past and to deliver the results listed below. These are the outcomes that are important to me as I strive to develop the moral and intellectual virtues that were traditionally considered the “end” of education (in the Aristotelian sense). So, here are the specific goals which are enabled by my AdlerNet:
Read through as many of the Great Books as I can with the time left to me on earth…which I hope is a few decades, at least! At a pace of 3 volumes a year with a normal lifespan, I should make it through the whole lot before I punch out (Lord willing).
Understand the history and development of the Great Ideas over time.2 Or put another way: understand what men thought and valued in different historical periods and how modernity changed that.
Listen to and converse with the brilliant minds and makers of our western civilization. How do you converse with dead generations? By thinking alongside them with a spirit of good will, and writing and sharing your reactions and experiences.3
To create your own AdlerNet notebox system, I recommend investing in the following books and supplies. Of course, you may adjust as needed to accommodate your own reading goals and situation.
Mortimer Adler’s "How to Read a Book", the ultimate reading guide for serious readers. This is the book that started my Great Books journey. We will refer to it extensively in Part II.
“Great Books of the Western World” collection
Print Option: There are many used options online, or you can be patient and look around. These sets were sold like encyclopedia hot-cakes back in the day so you’ll often find them at Friends of the Library sales, yard sales, and used bookstores. If you already own a different Great Books collection, like the Harvard Classics (aka “Five-Foot Bookshelf”), you can make do after a fashion, but you’ll lose out on the significant indexing advantage of the Syntopicon (see below).
Digital Option: I pre-ordered this set at a deep discount for my Logos Bible Software when it was released a few years ago. It looks to be on sale again, though the $375 price tag may still make some people cringe. However, think of it as a complete education in which you’re paying mere pennies on the dollar of what tuition costs at a 4-year liberal arts college (with likely better results). I often study at the library and I love having my entire Great Books collection accessible anytime on my laptop. More importantly, though, its search function and cross-referencing index make using the digital edition powerful and effortless. If I could only afford to buy one set here, I would choose the digital. (I apologize if that’s anathema to some of you!) :)
The Syntopicon, Vol. I (Angel to Love) and Vol. II (Man to World). Okay, you simply must own this set. This is the key—i.e. the secret decoder ring—to exploring the Great Ideas. It includes 102 foundational concepts of western thought divided over 2 volumes, with comprehensive articles, outlines, and citation lists indexing each Idea’s occurrences throughout the collection's works. The Syntopicon volumes are included in both the print and digital Great Books collection above, but if you don’t have the collection, you can still occasionally find the 2 volumes sold separately online. OR, you can order Vol I and Vol II digitally from Logos for $15.99 each (on sale now)! This is a no-brainer!
(Optional) Join Online Great Books and have quality editions of most of these books sent to you every month! Plus you’ll join an amazing community of readers who will accompany and encourage you on this journey.
Lots of 4X6 notecards. You will need white and colored cards. You may choose ruled or non-ruled, as per your personal preference. (I buy ruled). Get lots, you’ll go through them quickly and they are cheapter in bulk. You can also get 3X5 cards for shorter notes or if it’s your preference.
A minimum of 3 notecard boxes. I started out with these plastic card boxes but I didn’t like them much because they were, well, ugly and didn’t close securely. I have since switched to these 4x6 photo boxes because I can throw them in my bag when I head to the library, and they store nicely at home. But they don’t hold a lot of cards and I predict I’ll have to move on to something else eventually. Check out Scott Scheper’s Youtube channel to see his impressive set-up. I have yet to figure out where he gets his boxes. If anyone knows, please throw it in the comments!
Index Card Dividers. They should have the alphabet on one side and be blank on the other. You will use both sides. Get 3 or 4 sets.
Other supplies and stationery: black and colored pens, mechanical pencils, eraser or white-out, and a small straight edge ruler or compass. You will use these for marking up your reading. (Yes, you will have to write in your books. It’s part of the analytical writing process.)
Now it’s time to set up your boxes. You will start with 3 box types:
Timeline (or Idea) Box
The number of boxes will grow as you add cards to your collection, particularly the timeline and bibliography boxes, but these 3 types form the basic system. To set them up, do the following:
Index Box: Containing 2 index types.
Place index card dividers in one of the boxes, with the alphabet side showing, A-Z. (Optional: split the dividers into 2 boxes, A-L and M-Z).
Take white cards and label them with 1 letter each in the top left-hand corner, A-Z. File them behind the appropriate divider. This is your Term or Keyword Index.
Take 102 white cards and write one Syntopicon Idea (and its corresponding number) per card in the top left-hand corner. (The Ideas are listed here, in the middle of the article). Example: Desire (17). File them alphabetically behind the Keyword Index cards. This is your Syntopicon Index.
Place index card dividers in a new box with the letters showing, A-Z. You will eventually fill this box with bibliography cards and other structural notes from the books you read. This will be explained in Part II.
Timeline Box: As I said, my method is meant to have you engage with the Great Ideas as they developed and altered over time. Therefore, this box will be divided chronologically, according to a system of your preference. The type of notes stored here will be dialectic and explained in Part II.
Decide on a timeline that is meaningful to you. I went pretty basic and chose years in decreasing increments as we got closer to the present age, with negative numbers indicating the time before Christ (B.C.), like this:
-3500, -2500, -1500, -500, 0,
500, 1000, 1250, 1500, 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000
Write these on the blank side of your index card dividers and file them in a new box. For extra credit, take yellow cards and write down key events and notes to anchor your timeline and give context to your reading. Eg. “Peloponnesian War: 431-404 BC.” Store them behind the appropriate divider. Here are “30 Historical Memory Pegs” to help frame your classical learning.
That’s it for now! In the next post, we will get down and dirty on the mechanics of analytical reading and taking copious (but purposeful) notes to fill your new boxes. If you have any questions in the meantime, please put them in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
Sascha. “Introduction to the Zettelkasten Method.” Web log. Zettelkasten (blog), 27 October 2020. https://zettelkasten.de/introduction/#a-zettelkasten-is-a-personal-tool-for-thinking-and-writing
I believe this understanding is essential for having self-knowledge (i.e satisfying the famous Delphic exhortation to “Know Thyself”.) No one is an autonomous product of their own making. Just as our DNA is the unique combination of our parents’ genetic makeup, our values, zeitgeist, and ever-advancing horizons of meaning reflect the complex interplay of the cultural choices and commitments of our ancestors over millenia.
At a time when many political interest groups are conspiring to efface our history, the act of preserving our cultural memory and traditions is vitally counter-cultural.