Thursday, 9 February 2012

The commonplace and the quest for the perfect notebook

One of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks
During the heyday of the printed codex, from the 15th Century on towards the 20th Century, scholars, readers, and philosophers kept commonplace books. A commonplace book was essentially a notebook in which the reader would jot down useful passages from monographs and articles, witty lines from novels, interesting recipes, thoughts, ideas, or day-to-day observations. These notebooks would form a compendium of what the reader had enjoyed in other people’s writing and as a record of ideas that he/she might want to develop. The practice of commonplacing used to be taught as part of a classical education, certainly at Oxford and Harvard. Thomas Jefferson, John Locke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and Mark Twain all kept commonplace books which they referred to throughout their lives. 

 For those readers who took the practice to heart, a commonplace book became a reflection of their mind. Professor Robert Darnton writes (1): 

“Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”  (2)

A commonplace book was a means of interpreting the world: scaling down chaotic experience and preserving only snippets of especial knowledge. Note-taking allowed voracious readers to chart and navigate the miasma of the written word – what d’Alembert referred to in the Discours PrĂ©liminaire as the labyrinth of knowledge. Commonplacing and note-taking were – and are – “a semi-conscious process of ordering experience.” (3) For its keeper, a commonplace book was a guide, a map, a familiar, a daemon, a memory outside the mind. 

I have always loved the romantic idea of a commonplace book: a single book filled with striking passages of literature, the best notions discovered in philosophy, and general ideas. A true mirror of my mind. I read a lot and increasingly find myself forgetting the beautiful bits and pieces that I stumble across: they get buried in my mind like diamonds in a desert. Last year, I struggled to remember and find my favourite passage from my favourite novel, Albert Camus’ The Plague. I couldn’t remember the exact wording or which character to said it or to whom or anything about the scene in which it takes place. My only solution was to read the whole book again (which was no bad thing). (4)

Since about 2009, when my life became too complex to keep in my head (or my head became too simple to keep life in), I have been a prodigious note-taker. And yet I’ve never found my perfect note-taking experience. With my increased reliance on keyboards, I’ve become less able and less willing to write by hand. As well as my handwriting now being more or less indecipherable (even to me), I find handwriting inefficient: it takes longer than typing and afterwards I’m unable to manipulate the text in ways I think of as standard (copying, pasting, saving, blogging, tweeting, etc.). Though I have kept Word documents of typed ideas and transcribed snippets for several years, these lack the portability of a notebook. 

Various of my note-taking methods over the years

Now I may finally have found a solution. I recently bought an Android device which allows me to use the Web and download apps: the kind of device that everyone else had two years ago. I downloaded Evernote (remembering skim-reading this post by Ned Potter) and have since used the program for all my note-taking. As well as allowing me to type notes a lot quicker than I could handwrite them, my digital notes are a lot more usable than my analog notes: I can copy from them, I can carry them with me, and, using tags and various notebooks, I can categorise and classify them (5). I set up a notebook called ‘Commonplace book’ in which I’ve been keeping passages from books I’m reading and various snippets amalgamated from my Word document note files and from my Kindle’s ‘My Clippings’ file. 

So now at last it feels like I have my commonplace book – a digital commonplace book that I can access portably on my Android or from anywhere with a computer and an Internet connection. I hope that the technology will continue to work for me and will provide what those great readers of the Enlightenment had in their commonplace books: a guide, a compendium, a memory outside the mind. 



(1) From The Case for Books, Chapter 10 ‘The Mysteries of Reading’. 

(2) There's an interesting (but incidental) parallel here between this Enlightment approach to reading and Jonathan Franzen's recent negative comments about ebooks. Is it possible that we're actually getting closer to our forefathers' fragmentary approach to reading and understanding? See this excellent response to Franzen for more on this.

(3) Darnton again.

(4) For those who are interested, the passage is: 

“Tarrou, who had said nothing up to now, remarked without turning his head that if Rambert wanted to share the misfortunes of mankind, he would never again have time for happiness. You had to choose.”

(5) Some tags I've been using for various notes: 'Library Camp NW'; 'Library campaigning'; 'E-resources'; 'PhD'; 'Library history'.

2 comments:

Tom Roper said...

I wish my use of Evernote was as high-minded as yours, ' filled with striking passages of literature, the best notions discovered in philosophy, and general ideas'. Mine mostly contains notes like this:

Fish
Lard
Cat food

Simon Barron said...

Future historians will fill whole monographs with musings about the meaning of unearthed cryptic food-related e-notes.