Taking the Steinbeck, hold the Starbucks

So in less than a month I am taking my first ever trip to the US.  Part work and part holiday, my wife and I are making the most of the time by “road tripping” to see the real America behind the typical tourist routes.

This trip is only a little longer than two weeks, but it is something I have wanted to do for years.  You see, even before restoration, storage container auction and renovation shows became popular, my wife and I have talked about antiquing and just shopping around for Americana (or Europana(sp!)) and taking it back to little old New Zealand.

I love New Zealand, but one can never get over the feeling you are right at the edge of the world.  For all the culture you can siphon from an internet connection, sitting and looking at famous art, historical locations and youtube videos of famous writers only adds to the feeling of disconnect from history.  Nothing compares with the visceral experience of being in a world-class city, where even if you’re a cab driver or a waiter, at least you’re a cab driver or waiter in a place where the world, where history is “happening”.  You either get it or you don’t.

But the older I get the more I realise it’s either move overseas, or bring what I want from that world to me.  For the latter, there’s nothing better, I think, than the written word.  Compact, portable, I have a vision of sifting through car boot sales and collectors fairs in the Deep South, filling box-loads of books into a container, one that grows with out-of-print texts, musty tomes rescued from the bottom of a second-hand store shelf.  Some even have yellowing scraps of local newspapers between the leaves, to serve as bookmarks.  Neatly hand-written dedications on the inside cover, or, most prized of all, marginalia in tight script, a running commentary on the book itself, straight from the mind of someone from that period.

Interspersed in the container is other Americana.  Dented and worn nineteenth century furniture, tarnished metal fittings, mountains of old relics crying out for some repairs and a coat of lacquer.  And on top, boxes with the latest artists from whichever pocket of Manhatten or San Francisco is the most teeth-achingly “cool” at this moment.  One off prints, new t-shirt designs, hand-crafted and 3D printed jewellery, sculptures, carefully hand-made notebooks and stacks of original stencil and multimedia art.

Not this trip, but someday.

Exporting US culture to the world has become a cliche since the 90s, but I think there’s still a huge opportunity.  And who says US cultural exports need to be synonymous with Starbucks, Coke or Michael Bay films?  That’s not the real America, is it?  I’ve never been there so I wouldn’t know, but I’m going there to begin to scratch below that glossy surface.

I can’t wait.

Auctioneers steal our memories, and $100,000 in a Tesco bag

I live in New Zealand, and as my profile says, I have to get the vicarious experience of antique and famous commonplace books, notebooks, journals and the rest through the computer screen.  That’s why I am eternally grateful for the museums and libraries that upload high resolution scans of commonplaces online, giving an eye-opening experience of flicking through the book itself.  Yes, the book still needs to be accessed, read and – ideally – transcribed and metatagged, but at least it is there for the viewing.

That’s why it’s always a relief to see these rare items go to the ‘right’ place, such as Swansea University successfully bidding 85,000 pounds for a long-lost Dylan Thomas notebook toward the end of last year.

Snapshot of notebook sold in December 2014 at Sotheby's

Snapshot of notebook sold in December 2014 at Sotheby’s

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Basquiat notebooks – Brooklyn Museum exhibition

The NY Times has just published an article about an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ‘unknown’ notebooks.  I’ll be in Brooklyn in April and can’t wait to see these up close.

I admit I don’t know much about Basquiat.  I was impressed by the 1996 movie while I was at university, but I have had little reason to find out more.

But all it takes is a quick Google to see there’s probably no other artist who so visibly fuses the concept of note-taking with stream-of-consciousness art.  His artwork isn’t for everyone, but it is worth a good look, if only to get inspiration about notetaking itself, and the movement from “concept” to presentation.

From New York Times article

From New York Times article

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled piece (1983) from MoMA Collection

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled piece (1983) from MoMA Collection

Hollywood Africans (1983) - from Whitney Museum of American Art collection

Hollywood Africans (1983) – from Whitney Museum of American Art collection

Steven Johnson (2010) – “textual play” in commonplacing

I came across a good article recently about the commonplace book as applied to digital interfaces.  It is a 2010 article by Steven Johnson (http://www.stevenberlinjohnson.com/2010/04/the-glass-box-and-the-commonplace-book.html)

He starts with an interesting history of commonplacing as a memory aid, including a summary of Locke’s indexing methods, using it as a way to describe the practice of making associative links to create new ideas and new paths of thinking.

This area fascinates me, and is why I have a kneejerk reaction against the idea that a modern blog or a traditional diary/journal is a commonplace.  The commonplace physically brings discrete pieces of information together on a page, and is connected to the structure of the book itself, the tactile use of clippings, different handwriting styles/sizes, sections of the book and sometimes orientation of the words on the page.  A commonplace is not merely a transcribed list of excerpts with some additional comments, and this is why a printed version of a commonplace is helpful (especially so as not to squint over difficult handwriting) but, I feel, loses the soul of the creation.

Steven Johnson focuses on this act of creation and collage, and gives some examples of unique creations that can arise from such a practice.

He also makes some great points about modern commonplacing equivalents.  Rather than steer toward the usual handwaving about blogs/Evernote/etc, Steven’s take is that a closer “heir to the structure of a commonplace book” is the algorithmic page display you get when you complete, for example, a Google search – with its links based on popularity, additional recommended links based on your search history, explanatory pictures, and general descriptive information.

This, Steven says, is an example of the type of “textual play” that authors in the past used commonplace books for, for want of a better technology.

Steven goes on to say that “textual productivity” results in knock-on effects in the real world.  Providing information about the subjective ‘value’ of certain information creates new forms of value for a consumer him/herself, their contacts, and the marketers.

Steven ends with a plea for “textual productivity” to be given to the user.  The downside, as he points out, is that the traditional content creators can put many more restrictions on their work than before, stifling the creative impulse and the emergent properties that can come out if the end user were able to use “textual play”.

Blogs are a way of collation and distribution of information, but I see them more as a digital scrapbook, with little chance for real collaboration.  Evernote makes a start but in my opinion it is very much a trailblazer and is unfortunately the one that needs to work through all the kinks.  It will be the next generation of collaborative information value creation apps that will really make the impact.

Historical recipe books – huge online trove

The Wellcome Library has a huge collection of historical recipe books dating back to the 16th Century. The digital interface is fast, easy to navigate and the zoom function is smooth and user friendly.
Hours worth of goodies ready to look through, all free to download…

http://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/recipe-books/