I am old enough to remember life without computers. Old enough to remember life without cassette tapes, CDs, DVDs, and vcrs. Old enough to remember life before microwave ovens. Old enough to have played Pac Man and Frogger and Asteroids and Space Invaders in video arcades. Old enough that once I thought Pong a very cool video game until Atari came along. Heck, I can even remember when “touchtone” phones were newfangled. That was around the time my sister and I could annoy our parents by changing the channel on our remote controlled television by jiggling the car keys in its vicinity. I am not trying to make myself feel old, only trying to figure out why I am so astonished by some pieces of information I came upon in my reading the other day.
The first moment of wonder came while reading Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Emerson was a keeper of notebooks. He collected quotes and kept a journal, spent a lot of time thinking on paper in these notebooks, working out his ideas that would later appear in lectures and essays. When He died he had 230 notebooks that filled four shelves of a good-sized bookcase. Emerson was a diligent man and indexed every single notebook. A couple of the notebooks are even indexes to the indexes. After I got over the quantity of writing, my next thought was, “it’s a database on paper!”
Given that I have lots of pre-technology era living experience as evidenced at the beginning of this post, I was surprised I was so surprised by Emerson’s “database.” Well of course if you have that many notebooks you have to have a system of some kind. I have 38 notebooks and add another one every year or two and never once thought of indexing them. But then, do I really want easy access to what I thought about when I was 10 or 16, or 21? I’ve read those notebooks before and laughed hard at the worldly-wise tone spouting utterly ridiculous tripe. Therefore, I concluded, Emerson’s system was simply due to his genius, a unique, or at least, uncommon thing.
I thought that had to be the case until I began reading Nicholas Basbanes’ Every Book Its Reader. Here I discovered that Edward Gibbon of History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame, kept commonplace books and other notebooks and had a system for finding and retrieving the information in them. So did Isaac Newton. So did John Locke. It even turns out Locke wrote a book in French in 1686 to be published in English in 1706, called A New Method of a Common Place Book. In this book he writes about techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, etc, and gives advice on how to arrange information by subject and category. He suggests the use of key word headings and indexing. Of course he followed his own advice and, according to Basbanes, a study of Locke’s notebooks finds that he copied down “tens of thousands of quotations” from over one thousand books. No doubt with his system he could find the quote he wanted as fast as we could on our computers.
Computers and computer databases are amazing things. Still, I can’t help but wonder along with all that we have gained from them, what have we lost? Sure, we have access to more information from more sources than ever before. But I am certain Locke, Newton, Gibbon and Emerson had something in their notebook databases that we don’t have. They had a familiarity with the information they worked with. Having to write it down and index it themselves, they had an intimacy of knowledge that I think we lack these days. Or maybe I’m wrong and just romanticizing the whole thing. Either way you have to admit, those paper databases are pretty cool, no batteries, upgrades or genius required.