Monday, December 13, 2010

The Commonplace Book

From Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (emphasis added):
Darwin’s notebooks lie at the tail end of a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England: the practice of maintaining a “commonplace” book. Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”
Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. Imposing too much order runs the risk of orphaning a promising hunch in a larger project that has died, and it makes it difficult for those ideas to mingle and breed when you revisit them. You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands. This is one way in which the human history of innovation deviates from the natural history. New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos.
I would strongly recommend keeping a "commonplace book." Here's an earlier post on what I write every day.

4 comments:

  1. I love this topic and there is much I could say on it. For now, just two things:

    1. What system do you use for your digital note-taking? I downloaded evernote last week, but I suspect pen and paper will still be my main method.

    2. On your post from last year, you said this:

    "There is a delicate balance that has to be struck between writing things down as soon as you have the thought- which gives the truest representation of what you're thinking at that very moment- while making sure that you don't cut it off by trying to write it down too fast, and you become preoccupied with writing about it, when more development of the thought might have followed."

    No! Don't think that way, Brett! Writing in no way "cuts off" the thinking process. Writing = Thinking.

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  2. Hi Justin,

    1. I just use an ordinary text editor, TextEdit on the Mac - I prefer it to "stay out of the way" so that the emphasis is on the writing itself. I organize it chronologically and sometimes include [tags] so that it's easily searchable. I keep everything in the main doc but copy out certain things into other documents where I collect thoughts on certain topics. I find that other programs, like Evernote, make things too complicated when you're just trying to get things out of your head. They contradict these quotes:

    "The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings."

    "You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands."

    2. I definitely agree with you Justin. The general situation that I was thinking of was, let's say you're outside and you think of something you want to make sure that you remember. There's a balance between preoccupying your brain with finding the laptop and getting the thought down before you forget versus staying outside where more thoughts could develop but where you run the risk of not remembering the original thought.

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  3. 1. Great points. I like the idea of having everything in one file. My process is that after about 3 months, I will enter my previous scribbled thoughts in a private blog where I will apply and bunch of tags and have text search capability. More valuable than tags or text search, I've found, is simply the delay in re-visiting what you wrote. You forget a lot of it in that time, and can be pleasantly surprised.

    2. Ah, okay, that makes sense. Glad you are not one of those anti-writing people. :-)

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  4. 1. Interesting perspective - I also like to go back daily to what I wrote the previous year on that date.

    2. Definitely not: http://twitter.com/#!/brettbolkowy/status/26500679801

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