On blogs and commonplace books

I am sure you at some time may check/may have checked my About page. I usually do when I read a blog. The relevant bit today is this:

Mine is a 21st century commonplace book, no more and no less. No other purpose. Just a voice, a collection, a series of letters to whom they may concern. What more do you want? I have started a new blog because I want to recapture that simple purpose.

See Welcome

And at Welcome I hypertext you to September 2007 when I first wrote:

…a blog is what it will be. Mine is a 21st century commonplace book, no more and no less. No other purpose. Just a voice, a collection, a series of letters to whom they may concern. What more do you want?

Several things reminded me of that. First, the latest post by J R Benjamin is Lewis Lapham on the Crucial Role of Blogs. Lapham is a crusty old creature I rather like.

Nick Gillespie: Put against the broad array of the internet and this explosion in access to text, do more people have more access to more of the past, or do they just get lost in the clutter?

Lewis Lapham: Well, that’s the reason for curators. Yes, I’m a curator here. I’m like a museum director. And a lot of people who run blogs are the same. I mean, if you go to Truthout or Truthdig or Tomdispatch, essentially these are curated compilations or anthologies. And there’s going to be more and more and more of that, because as the internet becomes so crowded, it eventually becomes incomprehensible. So you’re going to have to find some source you can trust. And this, of course, is the secret of all successful American journalism — that’s the Readers Digest, that’s Time Magazine, that’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.

And then there is one of my current Wollongong Library borrowings:

Picture 009

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage

Papyrus rolls and Twitter have much in common, as each was their generation’s signature means of “instant” communication. Indeed, as Tom Standage reveals in his scintillating new book, social media is anything but a new phenomenon.

From the papyrus letters that Roman statesmen used to exchange news across the Empire to the advent of hand-printed tracts of the Reformation to the pamphlets that spread propaganda during the American and French revolutions, Standage chronicles the increasingly sophisticated ways people shared information with each other, spontaneously and organically, down the centuries. With the rise of newspapers in the nineteenth century, then radio and television, “mass media” consolidated control of information in the hands of a few moguls. However, the Internet has brought information sharing full circle, and the spreading of news along social networks has re-emerged in powerful new ways.

A fresh, provocative exploration of social media over two millennia,Writing on the Wall reminds us how modern behavior echoes that of prior centuries—the Catholic Church, for example, faced similar dilemmas in deciding whether or how to respond to Martin Luther’s attacks in the early sixteenth century to those that large institutions confront today in responding to public criticism on the Internet. Invoking the likes of Thomas Paine and Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet, Standage explores themes that have long been debated: the tension between freedom of expression and censorship; whether social media trivializes, coarsens or enhances public discourse; and its role in spurring innovation, enabling self-promotion, and fomenting revolution. As engaging as it is visionary, Writing on the Wall draws on history to cast new light on today’s social media and encourages debate and discussion about how we’ll communicate in the future

See Tom Standage’s blog: How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest.


Commonplace book from the James Marshall and Marie-Louise Osborn Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, via Flickr

So the thesis is that what seems so new is actually rather old, and what media burst forth with the invention of printing was something of an aberration, the balance now thanks to the latest technologies being restored.

See also ‘Commonplace Books’: The Tumblrs of an Earlier Era by Alan Jacobs.

When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I’m succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I’m not writing anything out by hand; I’m not even typing the words, which is what I used to do when as a teenager I kept a sheaf of favorite quotations in a desk drawer. I’m just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don’t have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it’s even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that wold be required if I were to write it out by hand.

This is perhaps troubling; on the other hand, such copying is non-destructive — I’m not leaving webpages with big blanks where the good stuff once was. And I’m making a pretty reliable and thoroughly public record of the things that are catching my attention day by day, which is quite a different exercise than writing out the words of the great geniuses of the past, but perhaps, over time, a more revelatory one.

And then along I come a couple of years later and on we go! And, Alan Jacobs, it was better than “vaguely or potentially interesting.”

I am not sure I utterly endorse Tom Standage’s thesis, but I am chuffed that my “commonplace book” analogy has some legs! But then I am sure I wasn’t the first to think of it.