Tuesday, July 16, 2013

John-Steiner on "Notebooks of the Mind"

During my holidays in Ohio and Indiana I bought at Karen Wykliff in Columbus a copy of Vera John-Steiner, Notebooks of the Mind. Explorations of Thinking (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1985). I had read the second edition of 1997 before. I found it almost as disappointing this time around as I did the last time. Perhaps this disappointment is due to my interest in notebooks as instruments of thinking. The book is not literally about notebooks. John-Steiner describes the ways in which (she believes) creative thought emerges from the accumulation of fragments of ideas. It is more a psychological investigation of thinking than it is about notebooks. As she says herself: "To attempt to answer the question What is thinking?, I have turned to experienced and productive thinkers" (3). This is supposed to uncover "the largely hidden processes of the mind" (4). In observing "experienced thinkers" she hopes to show that one of the central challenges of creative work is the capture of images and other forms of "condensed thought," and the development of this private language into public, expressive language. Though she refers to Vygotsky only three times—the index lists only two occasions—it is clear that his conception of where and how the supposed lines between nonverbal thought and verbal expression meet is informing much of what she says.

While there are some interesting observations about the notebook method of taking notes and writing, she focuses on the supposed "invisible tools" of thinking. There are chapters on visual, verbal, and scientific thinking, as well as a chapter on "the languages of emotion" and a conclusion on the "creativity of thinking." Talk of physical notebooks enters mainly through quotations and descriptions of what the experienced thinkers took themselves to be doing. I'd wish there was more discussion of the visible tools than speculations about what remains invisible.

The visible tool is filtered out almost completely and comes in only by accident, as it were, as on p. 129 where she observes how Anthony Burgess's writing illustrates "the lively interplay between completed work and the next stages in writing." He says: "I chart a little at first ... list of names, rough synopses of chapters, and so on. But one doesn't over-plan; so many things are generated by the sheer act of writing."

John Steiner quotes Jerome Bruner on p. 2, who observed: "we know little about the use of the notebook, the sketch, the outline in reflective work." We know little more about this subject after reading "Notebooks of the Mind," if only because the mind is not a notebook in any literal sense. In fact, we need notebooks (card indexes, software and other affordances) just because the mind is not a notebook—except, perhaps, in a metaphorical sense.

No comments: