It’s in the writing..?

When you read a transcription instead of the original written page, how much of the meaning do you lose?  And how much of the magic?

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(from Commonplace book of T Austen of Rochester (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

Here is an interesting article from the Spectator (Matthew Parris – December 2014) about “Why it’s time to revive the commonplace book“.
The article hooked me with its by-line, which is basically the reason for my own blog.

“A [commonplace book] often tells us more, unwittingly, about its compiler than a self-description would.”

Basically – historical letters and (most) diaries are self-curated, a type of manual Facebook.  While you can look at other ephemera – scrapbooks, professional notebooks, marginalia – these resources focus on a small range of topics.  Commonplace books are a catch-all for what the creator thought was worth remembering.  Therefore, it is the curation, the time and care spent in the record, and the formatting of the book that is just as important as the text itself.
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Tells you so much more about the writer than a transcription ever could (image from ‘Minced meat for pyes’ – commonplace book of Hester Lynch Piozzi (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

The main topic of Parris’ article is “More Rags of Time”, the limited edition, printed commonplace book of Kenneth (Lord) Baker (now only available through specialist booksellers).
The book appears to be mainly a collection of transcribed quotes, with the odd quote from Lord Baker (“It is no good telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof”).
Parris delves into the subject by talking about Baker’s notes showing “a lovely sense of self-mockery, a small dash of vanity, and a keen critical appreciation of satire”.
I completely agree with Parris that the commonplace book is a ‘lost art’ that is well deserving of revival.  On the other hand, I have the nagging thought that a transcribed “commonplace book” – such as you see cropping up every now and then – somewhat misses the picture.
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Often the format and style of the writing tells you as much about the personality as the text itself (from Commonplace book of T Austen of Rochester (Houghton Library, Harvard University).

At most, these kind of books give a summary of the author’s likes and dislikes from borrowed text.  That is where the magic – in my opinion – is lost.
More than a journal or a diary, commonplace books were meant to be carried and used.  It is one thing to read the quotes that someone decided to copy into their book.  It is another to see the frayed edges of certain well-thumbed pages, to see the quotes that were scrawled compared with those carefully transcribed.
Some commonplace books have an index a-la Locke.  Some have folded pages, crossed out quotes (once used by the author at a dinner party or book?), text running lengthwise, across the seam, in the margin, vertically or in a box.
Was a comment clustered in with others of the same type, or did an author dedicate an entire page of precious paper to the thought?  How does the handwriting change over time, and does the marginalia point to the author reviewing and revising the original text years later?
All of these are also clues to the mind of the owner.  Just as much as the choice of words.  How much would we lose the magic of Da Vinci’s notebooks if we saw only the printed text and some cropped images?
There are many amazing, digitally scanned collections of commonplace books online – check out my reference page for more links.  Yes, the handwriting is often hard work and for an amateur like me much of it is almost unreadable.  But half the fun of looking at these books is getting to know the author through their own pen scratches rather than a neatly typed and bound book.  It’s a lot of effort and many people won’t have the patience, but lets be honest – the printed versions aren’t exactly flying off the shelves in the Top Sellers section of the bookshop!
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Keeping letters – so meta

“Some were soil’d and tattered fragments, joined with care where words were torn.  Some were crumbling into atoms, by incessant readings worn… Yet all precious, and all priceless.  In their hastening decay, were these loved and voiceless witnesses of hours passed away.”

Sometimes when you are panning for ink, you find these golden nuggets.

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The impermanence of our written thoughts, brought to you by the Internet.  (from the Bronte Family Collection – Harry Ransom Center, reproduced under fair use)

I stumbled across this great poem (below) in a commonplace book kept by a woman named Mary Pearson.  Mary is another of those ‘common’ people who have not distinguished themselves in history apart from the fact that once in her life she had a short brush with a person of historical importance.

In Mary’s case, it was with Patrick Branwell Brontë, the brother of the famous Brontë sisters – another soul whose life was shaped (and perhaps destroyed) by his being close to the orbit of celebrity.

When Mary was around twenty, she had a lodger at the family hotel for a few short weeks.  Branwell Brontë penned some sketches in four pages of her commonplace book.  This resulted in her journal being considered historically worthy.  Thus, it is now part of the Brontë Family Collection and therefore her thoughts are now available for anyone to read via high definition scans.

And so now anyone in the world with an internet connection can read Mary Pearson’s words, including her transcription of an anonymous poem about the fleeting nature of words and “love letters”.  We can read it on the frayed and yellowing paper of her journal, and in her neat but hurried pen strokes.  Of course, nowadays I can read it from thousands of miles away, and that yellowed paper and fading ink is now in fact as permanent as a high-resolution and carefully archived digital record can allow.

From what little I can gather about Mary’s personality via her commonplace book, I think she would find that quite amusing.

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Old poem (Anonymous) – in the Lincoln Courier, 1st September 1849

 

Who pays for fornication and witch doctors?

I’d like to imagine people go to old collectibles auctions because they have a passion for the art and the topic.  However, when the sale item is a nearly three-hundred-year-old apology letter for fornication (yours for the generous price of around £400-£600) I’ll be a bit less weirded out if I can believe the buyer is in it purely for the re-sale value.

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Fornication at Invaluable.com

I added a post a while ago about the auction market for commonplace books and ‘ephemera’.  It’s a shame that these letters, journals, diaries, etc are so ubiquitous and easily stored/shipped, that they become perfect items to trade, since the contents are then out of the ‘public’ eye.

This example from Invaluable.com is a good one – “Description: Fornication etc.- [Examples of legal and religious agreements, orders etc.]”.  Probably an interesting bit of social history there.

Or, a treasure from the annals of quackery – a Homeopathic Physicians Commonplace Scrapbook and Ledger by Dr James Grant Gilchrist – on www.read-em-again.com (online Americana and ephemera site) for $1,250.00.  I’m sure there is some juicy history in there but the discovery will depend on both the expertise and inclination of whoever wants to fork out the $$.

That’s why I love when I find online scans that show more than a few teasing images (pun intended).  If you are interested in commonplace books, even for the artistic value (like me) if not for historical or academic research, check out the list of links to online scanned texts via my Read commonplaces online page.  These links are gold for the average hobbyist, and most of the sites are well-curated with gorgeous HD scans (please send me a message if you know of any more!).

The one down-side of these links is that – naturally – most of the content is heavily copyright protected, even if it’s freely available to search.  I have a list of commonplace books I’d like to review and delve into and – although I am sure my posts would come fairly squarely under ‘fair use’ – I want to respect the institutions who make their stuff so freely available by playing fair and asking permission as much as possible.  How they react is yet to be seen.

Is there a fair middle-ground?  If there’s no $ market for this ‘ephemera’ we probably wouldn’t have the quality and quantity we have now, but having a $1,000 text is the same as a book being hidden away (and un-scanned) in a dusty corner of a locked university archive.  The supply side seems to be well covered, but how do you increase the (fair and open-source) demand?

 

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HIstorical treasure-box, on sale at www.read-em-again.com

Commonplace book review – Matthew Day(s?)

What does it mean to be remembered?  In around 360 years will someone be reading your words only because, by chance, a single page of your notes had a passing reference to some person, or event that history decided was “noteworthy”?

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What if that is history’s only memory of you?  Despite what you think is worth remembering?  Do you care if your thoughts are remembered but you are not?  Or if they are remembered but people are not sure if it was you who said them or someone else… your son, or maybe your father?

Around the early 1600s, either Matthew Day, or Matthew Day, wrote a utilitarian commonplace (you can find it here), in a satchel-sized, gold-embossed book…  Continue reading

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

Continue reading

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.

The Notes Matrix – thoughts in public

So here’s a quickie about what I have been thinking.  We usually hear general comments about notetaking being the same, e.g.

– A blog is a virtual commonplace book

– Facebook is a modern scrapbook

– What’s the difference between a journal/notebook/diary again?

Here’s the way I see it.  The main questions are:

1. Are you writing the content just for yourself?

2. Are you writing the content so someone else (family, friends, the whole world) can see it?

 

Notetaking Matrix

Commonplace books?  I don’t agree with the idea that blogs are the modern commonplace books.  A blog is a public persona.  A commonplace was a private internet, a private tool to help someone present a persona.  Showing someone your commonplace book seems the equivalent of showing them your shaving kit.  You wouldn’t want people to see the commonplace itself if the idea is that you make it (‘it’ being your wit, knowledge, ability to quote poetry/prose) seem natural.

But then again it’s that “man behind the curtain” element that I think makes commonplaces so interesting for me.  What type of personal tool would someone from different countries and different eras find essential to present their impression of the best “public persona”?  What specific quotes would they want to memorise for exactly the right time?  What events do they want to recall quickly in a social setting, with the help of their essential little leatherbound book?

It’s different for everyone, of course.