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

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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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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.

16thC Recipe book, handwriting and UPenn Library

I’m trying to decide what I like better about online commonplace books, the snapshot of daily life centuries ago, the new info you find from reading the commentary of what that person found most important to remember, or just looking at the art of the bound book, the handwriting and the structure of the work itself.

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Commonplace review: F Longworth-Dames post #1

I am only starting on this journey of reviewing commonplace books, but already I am starting to see the task as a mash-up of detective work, pop (and not so pop) culture research, fine wine tasting and forensic psychology.  Not that I am qualified for any of the above, apart from the fine wine tasting, or course.  But that is, after all, just a metaphor.

The Trinity College site has a great interface for their manuscripts (link via “read commonplaces online” page).  The high-res scans load quickly and it looks like their selection is well-researched, if focused on a few individuals.  One downside is that I can’t find a summary page of the manuscripts, and it’s practically impossible to link directly to a record (which I’d like to for this post).

I am looking through commonplace #3 in the Francis Longworth-Dames collection.  If only we had journals like this to write in nowadays.

Commonplace leather cover

Stunning cover, and the inside has a great explanatory section about commonplaces.

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Who cares about notebooks, anyway?

Imagine you are the centre of the world.  Not difficult for many of us, deep down.  Regardless of how much we understand about how others live and see the world, we are the director, author and sole actor in the screenplay of our lives.

We crave the vicarious experience of seeing through another person’s eyes, through a camera lens or the words on the page, and it is not a mistake that the words we use to describe a masterful work is connected to this feeling.  We are “caught up”, “carried away”, we “lose ourselves” in the story.  But even in the best works, we are always conscious of ourselves as the observer, something that artists play with, exploit, comment on, but can never overcome.

We are the amalgam of those tangled thoughts in our heads, conflicting, contradicting, negotiating.  We see ourselves in the singular by the mere fact that we have only one body to express the multitude of potential actions that compete for primacy every waking moment.  And we are a generation of the image, the presentation to the world of the best of our faces, the one that ends up on our Facebook page, our Instagram account, our studied words on a self-conscious blog.

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