I’m not going to try to summarize this provocative talk by Steven Johnson — just go read it. I am also not going to mention that I have had a few things to say about commonplace books myself. (See what I did there?) But just two comments:1) I think Johnson pushes a point way too far when he runs a Google search for “journalism” and then writes, “What I want to suggest to you is that, in some improbable way, this page is as much of an heir to the structure of a commonplace book as the most avant-garde textual collage. Who is the ‘author’ of this page? There are, in all likelihood, thousands of them. It has been constructed, algorithmically, by remixing small snippets of text from diverse sources, with diverse goals, and transformed into something categorically different and genuinely valuable.” Genuinely valuable, maybe, but almost the opposite of the commonplace book. The key point about my commonplace book is that it is mine, culled from my reading, full of selections made by me according to my beliefs, commitments, and interests. A Google search has value, but none of that kind of value — even when Google is reminding me of my search history.2) Later in the talk Johnson makes a very, very good point about what’s happening to the text as certain digital architectures — I’m looking at you, iPad — become more closed. He provides a screenshot and then says,

This, as you all probably know, is Apple’s new iBook application for the iPad. What I’ve done here is shown you what happens when you try to copy a paragraph of text. You get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options “Highlight” and “Bookmark.” But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.

Yes. And here’s a related point: “Interestingly, the Kindle – even the Kindle app for the iPad – does allow you to clip passages and automatically store them on a file that can be downloaded to your computer, where you can post, archive, forward, tweet to your heart’s content.” This is true, but a little misleading. As far as I know, the only way to access your “Clippings” file is to connect your Kindle to your computer via USB. Using the Kindle apps for Mac, PC, iPhone, or iPad you can’t copy text — on the Kindle for Mac app (at least right now) you can’t even select text and highlight it. So Amazon and Apple alike aren’t doing much to facilitate copying for the purpose of quotation, or even commonplace-book-style selection.Which I guess is okay — after all, one of the guiding ideas of the original commonplace book was that the reader, by laboriously copying out the wisdom of some learned author, was assuming some of that author’s wisdom. Maybe we shouldn’t be copying and pasting but rather writing our quotations by hand. If it was good enough for John Milton. . . .


  1. That is great, Zach — thanks! I have looked and looked for something like this and was unable to find it. Am I a bad searcher? Or does Amazon not especially want to publicize this feature?

  2. My thanks as well for that link. It looks like the online highlight feature is on a beta site (kindle.amazon.com) where folks will ultimately be able to do a lot more to manage their Kindle content that's in the cloud (stuff you've bought from Amazon, even if it was a freebie, but not stuff you've used the email to transfer your own files or books from elsewhere like, just to pull a name out of the air, the iBook store).

    Right now, the main Kindle section of one's personal account is still all the old format. The new bells and whistles on the beta site don't make my heart beat faster. I suppose it's handy to be able to sort by whether you have finished reading a book, or gave up on it, or want to do the virtual equivalent of throwing it against the wall, or want to put it in a small TBR pile. But that's not really how I manage my ebook collection or my reading habits.

    They're still wedded to only sorting by alpha (by author and title), and since their metadata sucks, it's unbelievably clunky. They really need to introduce file folders or self-tagging. Once you reach a hundred or so items, it's terribly unwieldy.

    As for being able to take notes or highlight on the Mac version, their roll-out for the Mac "promised" that notetaking and highlights would be added features in the near future. That I'm really looking forward to — a simple cut and paste would be an enormous plus when working with other apps.

    What's not clear at all is how much space there is in one's cloud for notes or highlights. To be on the safe side, and since it's easier for me to handle text files when I want to use quotes in other apps, I just periodically copy the Clippings file from the Kindle to my computer. But at some point, there's going to be a capacity limit, at least on the Kindle itself, for notes one has clipped for years.

    I think amazon is feeling its way and hasn't yet figured out lots of the longer-term implications of content management decisions. But they do appear to be distinguishing themselves from Apple's approach to content, which seems to be that you only rent it from Apple for limited purposes.

    Glad to see you back posting. Hope you're feeling better!

  3. In the 90s, I once asked my poetry writing students to re-type a selection of their favorite poems by other authors. If I assigned that task today, I'd have to require hand-written copies. Regression?

  4. The inability to copy text is a major drawback for those of us reading books on computer programming topics.

    When reading such books in other electronic formats, such as PDF, it is easy to copy sections of program code from the book and paste these into the programming tool. This saves a lot of very tedious typing.

    I'm not a big fan of eBooks in general, but formats allowing copy and paste are becoming my preferred option for technical books of this kind.

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