Sunday, January 25, 2015

Supplemental Memory

One of the earlier mentions of the idea that paper notes can represent secondary or external memory is found in Jonathan Swift's A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet:
A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:' and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.
The passage is quoted in many places as positive advice. It should be clear, however, that Swift is deeply ironic, if not sarcastic or downright satirical. The "advice" is just as little serious as the observation that "it may be necessary for your ease, and better distillation of wit, to put on your worst clothes, and the worse the better; for an author, like a limbeck, will yield the better for having a rag about him." A commonplace book is common or trivial for Swift, and so will be the writer who relies on the "few and insignificant" original thoughts likely to be contained in it.

He would have chuckled at the people who take his mockery seriously as advice to be followed. I am sure he would have thought that they prove the very point he wanted to make about modern letters. I am sure that almost everyone who quotes the passage has not read it in context.

I tend to agree with Swift that commonplace books have had their day, and that they represent a way of supplementing memory that is best forgotten.


Angry Thinker said...

You may agree with Swift that commonplace books have had their day, but you do not explain why. In my opinion they are still very relevant & useful. In fact, depending how & for what purpose you se your note-taking app, it can be considered as a modern day version of a commonplace book. But that's just my opinion ....

MK said...

I will say more about it. But it is not like I have not talked about it in the past. See my previous posts on commonplace books.

Even today, they have their uses, of course.


Angry Thinker said...

I have not read your previous posts nor are they mentioned in this post.The way this post is phrased you give the impression your view is final: commonplace books have become obsolete. Now I understand that is not the way you see it :-)

Unknown said...

Thanks for your thoughts!

I think your blog would have benefited by becoming a bit more reader-friendly. For instance, by having some featured posts that would summarize your current views on particular subjects. There are quite a lot of posts and it's takes time to understand what you really mean sometimes because you don't always expand. I also didn't quite understand what you meant at the end of this post.

Another example. In one of the posts you wrote 'some people still use commonplace books this way. Others are trying to adapt electronic note-taking tools to this traditional approach, even though there are much better ways to keep one's notes today'.

What ways? Crosslinks seem to be missing.

Thanks anyway.