Posts Tagged ‘ blogging ’

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 ( – 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.


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:

Fulfilling the immortal promise of one Austrian terminator…

Wow.  It’s been awhile.  The dust has to be at least three feet thick in places, and the spiders are monster-sized (don’t even get me started on the cobwebs).

Looks like I’ll be reviving this old dinosaur once more, as an aid in completing this term’s assignments in a timely fashion.  You can expect blog posts on records management issues and posthumanism (surprise!).  I’ve got one of the former already percolating on my back-burner about the failed Edmonton City Centre Airport closure plebescite.  For more info, here’s a great article by Paula Simons summarizing the stakes and the outcome:

But first a few housekeeping matters:

  • Haven’t done much with the mission statement project over the summer, although I did complete a draft proposal at the end of the winter term that I apparently forgot to post here.  Expect that in days to come.
  • After taking a long and critical look at my XML/Mandala analysis of robots in Asimov, I’ve decided to completely overhaul my approach.  Not quite sure how I want to go about it, but I want to figure out a way that I can parse my reading of a text in a RDBMS, with the ability to export into XML or other languages for analysis with tools like Mandala.  Coding everything in XML from the start feels a bit like painting myself into a corner, particularly when I’m already looking at other ways of analyzing my “reading” of these texts besides the Mandala browser.  Basically I’m back at square one.  Expect more on this eventually, though not necessarily any time soon.
  • Personal news: Following a rather embarrassing and unremarkable delivery of my paper on Asimov at SDH/SEMI last June, I decided to join Toastmasters.  It’s been a great experience that’s given me some useful insight into how to prepare and present more effectively, as well as an opportunity to practice and build confidence in my speaking skills.  Just recently I won a club contest and will be advancing to the area competition.
  • More personal news: On top of a full courseload, this year I’m working as a reference assistant at Grant MacEwan U. city centre library, research assistant for a project studying risk communication for pregnant women and seniors (in Alberta) during the H1N1 pandemic last year, and I’ve renewed my contract as technology mentor for the Arts Resource Centre on campus.  If the blog goes updateless for several weeks, just assume I’ve had a nervous breakdown and will be released from my padded cell in good time.

And now to take care of those spiders…