Saturday, February 11, 2012

Commonplace Books and Ideas

One last thing I love in Steven Johnson's book. He describes how some of the great figures of the past kept "commonplace books". Recording things helps get over the limits of short-term memory and get more connections available, on the table. 

Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper. 


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. 


The trick is to have some structure , but not too much structure. 


The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association. For some Enlightenment-era advocates, the systematic indexing of the commonplace book became an aspirational metaphor for one’s own mental life. 


For me, this blog is the equivalent of the commonplace book, not that there is much in common with Locke or Darwin, unfortunately.  The blog contains quotes, stray thoughts, books I've read, current news, things that intrigue me. And I find it very satisfying indeed to do that, even if no-one else ever read it. 

It feels cumulative. 

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