The Verge at Work is a series about process. We’re not scientists, and we’re not gurus, we’re just trying to get some work done. The solutions presented here are highly personal, and highly personalized. Not the only way, but our way.
Writing about the history of commonplace books in The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton notes that readers in early modern England, from the layperson to famous minds like Francis Bacon and John Milton, “read in fits,” moving from book to book, grabbing bites, consuming and rearranging them. They’d transcribe and revisit notable passages in their commonplace books as a way to further comprehend the written word. Darnton writes, “[Reading and writing] belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”
Sixty years ago, Vannevar Bush imagined a hypertext information machine (a memex) in his essay ‘As We May Think’ that would act as an “intimate supplement” to memory. Bush imagined a desk-sized machine for keeping track of a user’s books, records, and communications, tracking what you read and your notes like a modern day version of the commonplace book. Years after reading a book or writing down a note, the user would be able to return to it, tracing written thoughts in “trails” that can be recalled, shared, and stored. “Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race,” Bush wrote, surely unaware of where hypertext would take us.