Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Emerson's Indexes

Robert D. Richardson, (1995) Emerson. The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press) makes some nice points about Emerson's method of indexing. "Indexing was a crucial method for Emerson because it allowed him to write first and organize later" (201). He first made an index of each journal in the back of it. By 1838 began making lists of topics and added under each heading passages that he thought applied, giving location symbols and page numbers of his different journals. In 1843 he prepared a separate notebook with a topic at the top of each page and included for each topic one sentence references to passages in the different journals; and by 1847 he had created a 400-page master index of topics followed by short quotes and location symbols. For example: "Intellect" had 96 references. He also made a huge biographical index. As he made new indexes over the years, he also kept the old ones.

These indexes were essential for finding things, as he ended up with 263 notebooks. They represent "months, if not years of work."

Clearly, this kind of work is unnecessary today, as Indexes are created automatically by any capable program. However, this does not mean that note-takers should not go through their notes again and again. Even a program like ConnectedText does not make the continued engagement with one's notes unnecessary. Refactoring, rethinking, re-arranging the material is just as essential today as it was for Emerson. Except, it does not involve the drudgery of re-writing indexes all the time. Emerson was forced to engage his material in this way. We should force ourselves to do it.

As I already pointed out in the last post: he found his material by indexes "alphabetic, systematic, arranged by names of persons, by colors, tastes, smell, shapes, likeness, unlikeness, by all sorts of mysterious hooks and eyes to catch and hold, and contrivances for giving a hint (W XII: 93, based on JMN V: 61)" (Rosenwald, 142). I don't know how to implement smells (but never really found the need for them either).

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