Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Darnton on Commonplace Books

Robert Darnton claims in "Mysteries of Reading," Chapter 10 of The Case for Books that "when readers kept commonplace books," they read differently from today: "Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life ... It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality" (149f., see also 169).

This account is misleading in several ways:
  1. Commonplace books go back to antiquity, Erasmus's Copia is in some sense a faint echo of the practices of Seneca and Plinius. See Seneca on Gathering Ideas. There is nothing specifically "early modern" about them or the way of note-taking they favored. The only difference is that they were based on paper books, not on papyrus rolls.
  2. Modern readers—especially academic readers—tend to read in fits and starts as well. Just see Luhmann on Learning How to Read and Luhmann's Zettelkasten. Indeed, doing research with a slipbox largely depends on not following the narrative flow from beginning to end. It involves jumping from book to book and making entries "under an appropriate heading" on index cards and breaking the text into fragments to be re-assembled later. Such readers, of which I am one, later re-assemble the information into new patterns by shuffling the cards or re-arranging the notebooks. So, nothing would seem to have changed in this regard. However,
  3. It is a fundamental mistake to think that the commonplaces were arbitrary headings that could be re-arranged at will to "make" sense of the world. Commonplaces were "common places," i.e. places that everyone would recognize as places. They expressed the fixed nature of the closed universe in which the Renaissance thinkers were thinking and living. They did not make sense, they discovered pre-existing sense that they thought was independent from their subjective musings. In this context, the commonplace book would be your own book only in the sense that it contained your selection of the many (or copious) meanings that the world held independently of your subjective effort to understand it. In fact, notebooks "stamped with your personality" were later inventions, presupposing a universe not ordered by God or Nature. They clearly post-date Locke's suggestion to alphabetize one's commonplace book and are a much more recent phenomenon.
  4. Nor did commonplace books make their keepers into "authors" in any interesting sense, just because it did not force them "to write their own books" (170). They were copyists, no more no less.
  5. Commonplace books may have allowed their keepers to develop "a still sharper sense of themselves," but not "of themselves as autonomous individuals." They would more likely have become aware of being creatures, "driven and derided by vanity," largely dependent, if not on God's mercy, then on the forces of the universe.

The discovery of autonomy is, of course, an interesting story that has some interesting precedents in the Renaissance and Protestantism, but even Luther's "Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders" is not so much an expression of autonomy as it is one of obedience to God. "So help me God" is the proper conclusion of this expression of defiance. Indeed, autonomy is not expressed in commonplace books. The ascend of the notion of autonomy rather wenht hand in hand with the decline of commonplacing, or so I would argue

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