Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Marshall McLuhan's "Reading Style"

I just came across this. If this is true, it explains a lot. It's easy to "read" five books a day, if you start on p. 69 and then just read the right-hand pages. You might find some "interesting quotes," but you are not making a serious attempt at understanding the material, even if you use index cards.

Actually, come to think of it, I should have read his books in precisely this way.[1]

1. See also Really?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Seneca on the Past

For Seneca, time is divided into three parts:
  • The present which is transitory,
  • The future which is uncertain and
  • The past which is unalterable.
So much is commonplace. What is not commonplace is how Seneca evaluates the different divisions. "The present is fleeting, to the degree that to some it seems non-existent. It is always in motion, it flows on headlong; it ceases to be before it has come, and will no more brook delay than the firmament or the stars, whose incessant drive never allows them to remain stationary. It is only with the present that busy men are concerned, and the present is so transitory that it cannot be grasped; but because their attention is distracted in many directions they are deprived of even this little." The future is uncertain. To worry about it is less useful than most people think. It is the past that is most important for him because
this is the part over which Fortune has lost her power, which cannot be subjected to any man's control. But this part men preoccupied lose, for they have no leisure to look back on the past, and if they had there would be no pleasure in recollecting a regrettable episode. They are unwilling to call to mind time badly spent, therefore, and have no stomach for traversing again passages whose faults are obvious in retrospect though they were disguised at the time by the pander pleasure. No one willingly turns his mind back to the past unless his acts have all passed the censorship of his own conscience, which is never deceived; a man who has coveted much in his ambition, behaved arrogantly in his pride, used his victory without restraint, overreached by treachery, plundered out of avarice, squandered out of prodigality, must inevitably be afraid of his own memory. And yet that is the part of our time which is hallowed and sacrosanct, above the reach of human vicissitudes and beyond the sway of Fortune, impregnable to the vexations of want and fear and the assaults of disease; it is the part which is not subject to turmoil or looting; its possession is everlasting and free from anxiety. The days of our present come one by one, and each day minute by minute; but all the days of the past will appear at your bidding and allow you to examine them and linger over them at your will. Busy men have no time for this. Excursions into all the parts of its past are the privilege of a serene and untroubled mind; but the minds of the preoccupied cannot turn or look back, as if constricted by a yoke. And so their life vanishes into an abyss. However much water your pour on will do no good if there is no vessel ready to receive and hold it; and similarly it makes no difference how much time is given you if there is no place for it to settle and it passes through the cracks and holes of the mind.[1]
This is about as much opposed as it gets to what GTD and other "time management" systems tell us today. The all focus on the present with a view to the future. They all focus on the uncertain and transitory. History gives depth to our lives. It is what we should try manage at least as much as the present and future.

Mind you, Seneca's concentration on the past has consequences for the way you live your live in the present. It tells us to live in such a way that we will be remember it with an untroubled mind. Taking note is a necessary condition of the possibility of such memories and the prevention of time passing through "the cracks and holes of the mind." And don't just think of the "weekly" or "monthly review" here either.

I am usually not given to preaching and I hope this is not too preachy.[2]

1. Seneca is, of course, aware of the fact that while the past may be unalterable, our usual interpretation of it is anything but. Some people have made a virtue out of this shortcoming. And this is what he is resisting. The text is from "On the Shortness of Life" (sect. 10).

2. See also Seneca on Gathering Ideas, written four years ago.

Friday, December 23, 2011

On Eco, One More Time

This review of Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery is hard-hitting, but it is not unfair. Just one sentence that strike a chord with me: "Not only is the book stuffed with undigested historical, theological, and philosophical material that impedes any suspense, its protagonist is uninflectedly despicable. Moreover, this character is not just central to the plot, he is the voice of the novel; there is no voice, no character of any sort, to challenge him." The word "undigested" seems best to characterize most of his recent stuff, or better: "bits and pieces". "Ein ausgeschütteter Zettelkasten", as Karl Kraus would have said.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Reductionism of the Ridiculous Kind

Perhaps all of reductionism is ridiculous, but this one, noted by Edward Vielmetti, is more ridiculous than most. "Lola tosses her red phone up in the air and instantly goes through her mental Rolodex of possibilities. Faces flash on the screen. She decides to hit up her banker father and darts out of the house."

Our minds are certainly more complex than any Rolodex ever was, but then again this analogy might be intended to apply just to Lola's mind and may thus ultimately be a put-down with sexist overtones.

ConnectedText and Ulysses

ConnectedText and Ulysses As I have reported before, I have switched from the PC platform to the Mac. I run Parallels on the Mac in order to be able to use an old version of Quicken and ConnectedText. My present "workflow" is something like this.
  • I use nvAlt as an inbox. Every note that does not go directly into ConnectedText, goes here first. I like it because I can use wiki markup "//...//" for Italics "**…**" for bold, etc. It even uses "[[…]]" for links. So I can use my familiar markup and eventually paste it with the proper markup into ConnectedText.
  • I keep all my notes and do most of my work in ConnectedText, as I did before.
  • When it comes time to write the final draft, I use Ulysses. I have set it up so that it uses the same markup as ConnectedText (including "=" etc. for headings). This was very easy to do, since Ulysses uses plain text and I can just paste the raw text from ConnectedText into it. Even the inline footnotes translate well. ConnectedText uses "[! … !]", Ulysses uses "{{-…}}". The markup can easily be replace by Search and Replace. Why switch to Ulysses and not stay in ConnectedText? It's because Ulysses has much sronger export capabilities to PDF, RTF and ePub.
  • I use Mellel for final polishing. Its files can be exported to PDF, Word and OPML, if need be.
So far, everything seems to be going smoothly. It also seems to prove the advantages of using plain text over proprietary formats. I hardly notice that the central application I use is in windows, while almost everything else is in Mac OS X.

I am still looking to better fit in Scribe, but that has to wait until it can save and import OPML.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joyce's Notesheets

Sarah Davison reports in "Joyce’s Incorporation of Literary Sources in ‘Oxen of the Sun,'" (Genetic Joyce Studies 9 (2009) [ Sarah Davison:

In 1938 a number of sheets of notes were sent by Paul Léon, then acting as Joyce’s secretary, to Harriet Shaw Weaver, and ultimately deposited in the British Museum. These sheets were transcribed by Phillip Herring in James Joyce’s Notesheets in the British Museum (1972). They comprise nearly 3000 notes, of which approximately 2000 entries contain examples of period diction, and the remainder relate to embryology, the history of the English language or detail from previous episodes. Joyce then used the information he amassed to write ‘Oxen’, striking through entries on the notesheets as he incorporated them in successive drafts.

 The "notesheets" do not seem to be notecards, but of "double (that is folded) sheets." The notesheets for the "Oxen of the Sun" are sheets of paper that contain about 2000 entries that Davison describes as "localized chaos."[1] He is also said to have used little scraps of paper from writing blocks made for the waistcoat pockets on which he noted things he heard or overheard. These materials were then transferred to the larger notesheets. Material used from the notesheets were struck out (using colored pencils, usually in red, blue and green.

 Joyce also kept some sixty Notebooks (as in the case of Finnegan's Wake, for instance). He appears to have used some of them over a long period of time. Some of them are alphabetical, containing quotes, remarkable sentences, descriptions of people, places and episodes.

 His "workflow" has been described as consisting of eight steps: 1. raw notes, 2. notesheets, 3. raw drafts, 4. final drafts, 5. typescripts, 6. copy-edited typescripts, 7. page proofs and 8. final proofs.

 1. See also Thomas E. Connolly, The Personal Library of James Joyce (Buffalo: Norwood Editions, 1978), a book I have to get.

Ulysses, Scrivener and ConnectedText

In a very thoughtful blog entry, called Scrivener or Devonthink Pro, with a side of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Jake Seliger explains why he finds Scrivener less useful than James Fallows seems to do. Starting from an article discussing James Joyce's use of index cards in giving a shape to his "Ulysses" that is independent of any linear plot line and resembles more the unity of a mosaic, he explains
if Ulysses can be said to have a plot, its plot is formless and does not give form to the book – it is not shaped to produce a series of dramatic sensations for purposes aesthetic or otherwise; it has no conclusion in event, only a termination in time [. . .]” If a plot “does not give form to the book,” then something must; for some writers, Scrivener might organize it and help find a way to present formlessness. The program helps one create a mosaic, but I’m not trying to create a mosaic in my work, at least right now: I’m trying to create a linear plot. So I don’t think the program will help me as much as it could.

This resonates with me, even though I am not so sure that Scrivener is essentially designed to "help find a way to present formlessness." It has an outliner, after all, and it might better be characterized as providing a way out of formlessness to a linear plot or argument.

However, in doing so, it clearly pays more attention to the journey from the formless stuff than it does to the end result, i.e. the "linear plot." In fact, it does not even prescribe a linear plot or a sequential argument at all. This does not mean that it prevents one from reaching such an end or that one must "present formlessness" or that one is destined to place fragments in what appear to be "their proper positions through a process of rough drafts and revisions."[1]

The makers of Ulysses, the model of Scrivener, point out correctly — it appears to me that no longer "text is written at once, in a single document. A story consisting of 200 pages results from fractions, starting points, discarded ideas and many more – all neatly distributed along a total of 800 pages, most likely with over 100 different documents, combined with notes, Post-Its, scribblings on the margins of numerous daily papers, beer covers, napkins and the back sides of photos." Ulysses, just as Scrivener, is designed to free the writer from the need to deliver and develop his text in predefined structures." Instead, it gives the writer the "ability to form his own preferred structures – both within the text and in organising things."[2]

Still, by blurring the distinction between research, "pre-writing," preliminary drafts, rough drafts and final product — or, perhaps better, by allowing one to do all these things in one and the same application, it tempts the user to spend more time on the preliminaries than the production of the final product. It "distracts," which, in the day of "distraction-free" software might appear to be a bad thing. People end up spending more and more time on particular small passages rather than "the whole thing." To be sure this is only a distraction — and it might not be an issue for everyone — but it would be a mistake to deny that this temptation exists.

Seliger uses DevonThink to structure his research, just as I use ConnectedText. This puts a wall between the two activities. And I am beginning to think that such a wall is a good thing, even though I think it needs to be "porous." For the last book, I used to different projects in ConnectedText: one for research, the other for writing. In the end, I exported the writing project to rtf files. This worked, but I wish I had not spent as much time with "word processing." Perhaps Ulysses will work better as an intermediate stage between ConnectedText and the Word Processor. But I don't not know yet.

1. He quotes from a paper by Walton Litz: "It was the function of the note-sheets to assure that patterns and relationships already visualized by Joyce reached their fore-ordained positions in the text. Like the mosaic worker, he was continuously sorting and re-grouping his raw materials, assigned each fragment to its proper place in the general design. The mechanical nature of this process emphasizes the mechanical nature of those ordering principles which give Ulysses its superficial unity." The note-sheets seem to him as "note cards."

2. See Welcome to Ulysses. In the spirit of open disclosure I should perhaps add that I bought Ulysses yesterday (at the price of $9.99 in Mac Applications store and wasted spent yesterday working with it on a long overdue contribution to a collection of essays. This largely contributed to the need to make explicit these musings. See also my earlier, not so complimentary post on the creators of Ulysses.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Arno Schmidt's Zettel

This Web site publishes a Zettel (slip, index card) a day from Arno Schmidt's card index — in German.[1] Arno Schmidt was one of the most significant and most interesting German novelists of post-war Germany. This Website in English presents more information about Arno Schmidt.

Dave Winer, who may be said to have started the electronic outliner category with VisiText, is said to be the grandnephew of Arno Schmidt.[2] This is interesting because Schmidt's motto: "I don't know anyone who is right as often as I am" could also be Winer's.

Here a copy of one of his Zettelkästen or manuscripts consisting of ordered slips:

Doesn't look much like an outline — or does it?

1. I have never written an entire entry on Arno Schmidt, but see this entry.

2. See this Wikipedia entry.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Scribe is an easy outliner for the Mac.

It costs 12.99.

December 5, 2011: The application works very well. You just need tab and delete to move headings around. You can paste the outline into TextEdit and the formatting stays intact. However, saving it as RTF file and opening it in MS-Word leads to rather unpredictable results.  Importing or pasting it into Mellel works better, though. Hitting tab at the beginning of each item, makes them line up correctly, so the outline structure remains intact.

It would be good, if it could save to OPML or other formats.

Flat Outlines versus Hierarchical Outlines

Most outlining programs afford the ability to write very intricately ordered deep structures. The temptation is to develop such a hierarchy at the very beginning of one's writing project, but this can be counter-productive. A flat outline, that is, an outline that goes no deeper than one or two levels is more than sufficient at the beginning of most projects.

The first outline should be a rough indication of all the things you need to cover and give you a route that you can follow. The details will follow later — as you are writing. A more hierarchical structure will thus emerge as you are working out the details. For that reason, a hierarchical outline makes sens only later, when you are completing the project, that is, the essay or the book. It is a means of tweaking what you want to say, not a means of planning. Both kinds of outlines have their place. Most people (in my experience) mistake the order, however.

Charles Dickens' Plan Sheets

Last week, I read Jane Smiley's Charles Dickens, A Life (Penguin, 2001). I found it very interesting. One thing that caught my attention was her claim that Dickens kept lists of names for his novels and characters. Names were obviously very important for Dickens. They are highly evocative and have often "symbolic" significance. As I am interested in lists and note-taking, I began to wonder about what note-taking methods Dickens used and how he integrated it in his writing.

There are a number of publications that deal with this. The ones I looked at were Harry Stone (ed.), Dickens' Working Notes for His Novels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987) and John Butt and Kathleen Tillottson, Dickens at Work (London: Methuen & Co., 1957). This is what I gathered from a cursory perusal of these works.

Dickens wrote his novels usually in installments for journals over a certain number of months. When he began publishing the book, he could therefore not have a clear idea of the end or, for that matter, of the middle of the work. On the other hand, he needed to have some idea about what was to follow and plan for it. To this end, he made "working notes" that  deal with the structure of the work as a whole, explore and plan characters, their relations, the themes he wants to explore, and, in particular, the symbolic "pictures" that characterize his works.

The working notes took the form of "plan sheets" for each installment. In these he worked forward and backward in planning the whole novel. He followed the following procedure:
taking a sheet of approximately 7" x 9" of (pale blue) paper, he folded it at the long side horizontally in half,  which he then opened, using the left half to make notes about ideas for future developments: things having to do with planning and decision making, writing queries to himself about which options to take, what character to kill when, tags and motifs, about names, alternate possibilities in story development, etc. Often, he answered such queries later a laconic "Yes," "No," "Not yet," "Consider for next number," etc.

On the right side dealt with the substance of the chapters. Thus he uaully wrote on the top right of the sheet the name of the novel and the installment number; below the title he wrote the name of each planned chapter. In the space under each chapter he listed the most important events. The "plan sheets" varied very much, as one might expect. Some plans are very full, some remained rather empty.

Sometimes he supplemented these planning notes with supplemental notes about chronology, calculations of the ages of characters, ratio of manuscript pages to printed pages, considerations of what he had done and needed to do; plans for the end of the novel.

These Plans were succinct outlines of reminders and motifs, resumes. They are "compact and cryptic," as they were only intended for him. Apparently, he kept the notes together with his manuscripts. One might therefore say that Dickens was of necessity an outliner.

However, his outlines were not hierarchical so much, as they were flat. They were plans about what to do first, second, third, etc. that left open the possibility of changing some of the order of the scenes and picture, but on the whole fixed the order of the action. There are some people who like to claim that one needs a special program, like Scrivener, for "non-linear writing." Dickens' approach show that nothing could be farther from the truth — or so it seems to me.

In some ways, his working method may be said to resemble the a simple outlining program, like for instance, Notetab's outlining feature. It is not very elaborate but very functional. It also resembles the kind of approach that is evident in Scrivener, but any modern writing application would do. Even Notational Velocity (on the Mac) or ConnectedText (on Windows) would do with proper tagging and linking. In fact, I prefer the latter for both planning and writing — not to sound like a broken record.[1]

1. See also Hölderlin and Version Control.