my commonplace book

Recently I’ve been reading and enjoying very much Steven Johnson’s book “Where Good Ideas Come From“. A particular passage from this book inspired me to start a new blog – a journal – to record everyday thoughts. Here is the passage from the chapter “The Slow Hunch” that inspired this journal:

Darwin’s notebooks lie at the tail end of a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England: the practice of maintaining a “commonplace” book. Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters – just about anyone with intellectual ambitions in the seventeenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. The great minds of the period – Milton, Bacon, Locke – were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

A few paragraphs later:

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for htem, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. Imposing too much order runs the risk of orphaning a promising hunch in a larger project that has died, and it makes it difficult for those ideas to mingle and breed when you revisit them. You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands. This is one way in which the human history of innovation deviates from the natural history. New ideas do not thrive on archipelagos.

So the basic idea of this journal is to write down what I think about every day, or at least frequently; much more frequently than my blog. On my blog I have been concerned about publishing only high quality content, and as my standards of what constitutes “quality” have increased, the frequency of my blog publishing has decreased. The purpose of this journal is to intentionally write down half-formed ideas to help me better remember them both through the act of writing them down and through revisiting them later.

I am making this journal public in the hope that others may benefit from my half-formed ideas, and that I might benefit from others’ input.

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2 Responses to my commonplace book

  1. Pingback: new blog: my journal // Bill Higgins' Blog

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