Commonplace books

Darwin kept these amazing notebooks. In the Enlightenment, they were often called “commonplace” books. A commonplace book was a great engine of innovation in the period. People would transcribe, very dutifully, quotes from books that they found influential. They would also intersperse it with their own notes, their own ideas, and sketches and rhymes. And they would go back and reread these books stitched together from all these different perspectives, all these different voices interspersed with their own voice. And it was this process of borrowing and remixing and revisiting, they created their own kind of intellectual presence. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin, Priestly, Darwin, all these people kept these very elaborate commonplace books. It was a bit like a private version of blogging something. The important thing is they were rereading their own work. That revisiting of their own ideas and those influential quotes was crucial to the exercise.

This is the second idea I wanted to capture from Steven Johnson’s talk on Where do good ideas come from?.

As he points out, commonplace books have a lot in common blogging. This blog started out as a personal blog with the intention of keeping in touch with my family, but over time it’s become different. About a year ago, I talked about the direction the blog was taking. On Tuesday, I realized what I’ve been doing for the last year: commonplacing.

In this I was guided by other blogs that I find useful, that point me to ideas, articles and podcasts that often wind up on otrops.com. Blogs such as bobulate, Marginal Revolution, 3 Quarks Daily and kottke.org. All of whom are effectively commonplacing.

Elsewhere, Steven Johnson, has discussed commonplacing at length. He also addresses two potential futures of online content:

The contrast here suggests to me that we have two potential futures ahead of us, where digital text is concerned, or that the future is going to involve a battle between two contradictory impulses. We can try to put a protective layer of glass of the words, or we can embrace the idea that we are all better off when words are allowed to network with each other. What’s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we can’t exploit the basic interactivity of that text? People don’t want to read on a screen just for the thrill of it; even with the iPad’s beautiful display, reading on paper is still a higher-resolution experience, and much easier on the eyes. Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them. We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box.

Having identified my own beliefs in civic republicanism, I’m obviously not a huge fan of Johnson’s glass box. I need to get better at running everything I’ve read through this blog, though. As it stands, much of what I read and my responses to it are scattered across multiple services. This is fine. I want to spread what inspires me as widely as I possibly can. I look forward to the conversations that result from that. But I want to document anything that has me thinking here. Not so I can control it, but so I can review it. Reviewing delicious, twitter, goodreads, and the several other services I’ve used is too difficult, and never really happens. However, I find that I come back to what I’ve written here again and again. So this is where anything interesting should be captured, even if it also appears on other services.

OK. That’s it. Navel gazing over.

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