The Commonplace Book—extinct form of critical reading and sensemaking?

I found Robert Darnton’s chapter on the Renaissance tradition of the commonplace book an interesting insight into how people made—and make—sense of what they read.  It made me wonder about how this tradition of reading has changed over time.  Darnton suggests that today’s reader has learned to read sequentially, while the early modern reader read segmentally, “concentrating on small chunks of text and jumping from book to book” (169).  The implication is that, from this transformation of practice, we have lost a critical approach to reading.  The commonplace book, Darnton describes, was a place where early modern readers collected bits and pieces of texts alongside personal reflections about their significance (149).  This activity was a hybrid of reading and writing, making an author of the reader, and serving as a method for “Renaissance self-fashioning”—the grasping for a humanist understanding of the autonomous individual (170).  Arguably, in adopting a sequential mode of reading and forgetting the practice of the commonplace book, we have lost a useful tool for making sense of the world and of ourselves.

At the beginning of the chapter, Darnton makes a curious allusion to the present reality, the Digital Age.  He writes: “Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end (unless they are digital natives and click through texts on machines), early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book.” [Emphasis is my own] (149). Clearly he is referring to hypertextual practice, the connective structure of texts on the Web that are joined through a network of inter-referential links, and provoke a non-sequential mode of reading.  The Web has initiated a number of changes in how we read, write, create and make sense of texts.  Hypertextuality is certainly one them, but I think Darnton only touches upon the tip of the iceberg with this passing reference.  While the commonplace book as genre might be extinct, new hybrid forms of critical reading/writing have taken its place.  Take, for instance, the blogging phenomenon.  Many people today write blogs on a vast variety of subjects.  Most represent critical responses to other media—articles, videos, images, stories, other blog posts.  They are the commonplace book of the digital native.  The difference is that the digital native’s commonplace book is accessible to all, and (more often than not) searchable.  Consider also the phenomenon of microblogging in the form of Twitter.  As an example, I am going to look at my own Twitter feed (http://twitter.com/eforcier – I have attached a page with specific examples).  In 140 character segments I carry on conversations, post links to online documents and express my reactions to such texts.  It is, in fact, perfectly possible to consider a 21st century individual’s Twitter feed analogous to the early modern reader’s commonplace book.  These activities represent a far more complex mode of reading than Darnton assigns the contemporary reader.  It is a type of reading that is at times segmental, at times sequential, but is remarkable because of the interconnectivity of sources and the critical engagement of the reader that it represents.  What is most interesting is that, rather than emphasizing the notion of the autonomous individual, these digital modes of reading/writing emphasize collectivity and community—what could be described as a “Posthuman self-fashioning”.

 

Darnton, R. (2009).  The Case for Books. New York: PublicAffairs.  219p.

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I have not include the appendix of selected tweets that was submitted along with this assignment, but I’m sure you’ll get the gist by viewing my Twitter page: http://www.twitter.com/eforcier

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  1. I just finished Darnton’s “Case for Books” and was also most taken by his discussion of commonplace books. Great post.

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