I’m not going to try to summarize this provocative talk by Steven Johnson — just go read it. I am also not going to mention that I have had a few things to say about commonplace books myself. (See what I did there?) But just two comments:1) I think Johnson pushes a point way too far when he runs a Google search for “journalism” and then writes, “What I want to suggest to you is that, in some improbable way, this page is as much of an heir to the structure of a commonplace book as the most avant-garde textual collage. Who is the ‘author’ of this page? There are, in all likelihood, thousands of them. It has been constructed, algorithmically, by remixing small snippets of text from diverse sources, with diverse goals, and transformed into something categorically different and genuinely valuable.” Genuinely valuable, maybe, but almost the opposite of the commonplace book. The key point about my commonplace book is that it is mine, culled from my reading, full of selections made by me according to my beliefs, commitments, and interests. A Google search has value, but none of that kind of value — even when Google is reminding me of my search history.2) Later in the talk Johnson makes a very, very good point about what’s happening to the text as certain digital architectures — I’m looking at you, iPad — become more closed. He provides a screenshot and then says,
This, as you all probably know, is Apple’s new iBook application for the iPad. What I’ve done here is shown you what happens when you try to copy a paragraph of text. You get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options “Highlight” and “Bookmark.” But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.
Yes. And here’s a related point: “Interestingly, the Kindle – even the Kindle app for the iPad – does allow you to clip passages and automatically store them on a file that can be downloaded to your computer, where you can post, archive, forward, tweet to your heart’s content.” This is true, but a little misleading. As far as I know, the only way to access your “Clippings” file is to connect your Kindle to your computer via USB. Using the Kindle apps for Mac, PC, iPhone, or iPad you can’t copy text — on the Kindle for Mac app (at least right now) you can’t even select text and highlight it. So Amazon and Apple alike aren’t doing much to facilitate copying for the purpose of quotation, or even commonplace-book-style selection.Which I guess is okay — after all, one of the guiding ideas of the original commonplace book was that the reader, by laboriously copying out the wisdom of some learned author, was assuming some of that author’s wisdom. Maybe we shouldn’t be copying and pasting but rather writing our quotations by hand. If it was good enough for John Milton. . . .