Thinking with your own ink – and baby dragons

Well, 2017 has been a rocky one so far.  Over a few short months I have been quite literally hands-on performing an autopsy on our pet horse (my first and hopefully only time), seen the last of my side of the family leave town, started psychoactive drugs for paralysing nerve pain that I then found was being caused by (only) an abscessed wisdom tooth for the last 9 months, been in a car crash that ended in a write-off for our car and nearly a fight in the street in front of my family, and been in the thick of it for a very, very public emergency at work while my boss has been talking since February about disestablishing my job.  And that’s only the highlights.

So I’m making pictures of cartoon dragons and having a damn good time doing it.

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Picture is courtesy of my 7yo’s artistry (the one on the left hand side).  Yes, my 3d rendering and design is laughable from a technical pov, but I have only been learning Blender for a couple of weeks.  And I’m happy to post this embarrassing pic because at this stage of “the curse of 2017” I just don’t care anymore.  As I tell my daughter, “no you’re not bad at this, you’re just a beginner”.

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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!

Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe

Here is a link to an interesting post (link below) by Marguerite Happe on “Project Dust Bunny”, a research project by the Folger Shakespeare Library to collect and analyse fragments of DNA and other articles that collect in the spine of old books.

dust_dancing_in_the_sunlight_me_074aWhile at first it sounds like an excellent idea, she makes some very good points about what could be a slippery slope.  While it sounds like a great idea to analyse these fragments, there is a question about whether the article is ‘part’ of the book.  For example, if a famous author decided to bookmark a diary with a lock of hair, should the hair be counted as ‘part’ of that historical artifact?  How about insects, leaf pressings or other nature samples?

For Project Dust Bunny, the American Libraries Magazine comments that the researchers are deciding how much dust, etc to take out, or whether to leave it until the scientific analysis is advanced enough.

Which leaves another question.  If I bought a book at an auction which was found to be owned by Shakespeare himself, would I ‘own’ any of his skin and DNA within the creases?  To analyse it?  To publish medical or family history data from the DNA that could be embarrassing to his descendants?

It all has too many shades of Henrietta Lacks, and in a way I am glad I will never have enough money to afford a purchase that would necessitate that type of ethical brain teaser!

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When I was in Special Collections today doing research for a Hitchcock project, I ran into Wendel Cox, the World’s Best Reference Librarian. As we were chatting (and they were working on exhi…

Source: Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe

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.

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/