I find my thoughts on this week’s readings shaped by two mental “commonplace” notes. One is I. A. Richard’s quip, “A book is a machine to think with.” The other recalls an experience at the Morgan Library: upon presenting a series of medieval manuscripts, a curator mentioned that textual margins developed in order for readers to turn a page without smudging ink. After note-taking became common, scribes began playing with margins and spacing to facilitate the study (e.g. wider spaces between characters in reading primers so students could practice).
Taking these notes as “epitomes” for the readings, one can attempt to crystallize a few simple truths regarding note-taking. Beginning with Richard’s comment, we understand that the act of reading requires, much speech, structuring one’s thoughts to comprehend the meaning the creator intended to convey. Such is the rationale for why one may reread a sentence; the issue is less a failure to understand the individual words used in an utterance and more the personal attempt to develop a receptive thought structure. Viewed under this concept, Blair’s “adversaria” become quite transparent and familiar in their utility: they’re simply notes to guide our thinking towards a mental structure that aids comprehension, a warm-up for our ‘cramped’ brains prior to the Barthesian game of reading. Hence the merit of other writer’s notes; they present an avenue of thought or “experience” (Jones) that may assist understanding a writer’s intended meaning.
Indeed, this view also explains the merits of note production in general and classroom phenomena like, “…students in the same class in Paris [coming] away with full-text notes from a course on geography, identical but for aural mistakes…” (Blair) As much as the act of reading requires a structuring of thought, so does the writing act itself. The production of even scribbles requires a (via Whitehead and James) “violence” of thought that steals language away from the associations of thought in the mind. In the act of writing these notes, the students experience the frame of thought conductive to this stream of language. Even if they fail to return to these notes, they still possess the experience of structuring their thoughts in such a manner, should they be required to do so again.
Yet, while this frame of thought explains the “adversaira” it fails to address the “commonplace” and other aspects of note-taking. While the act of writing itself may facilitate thought, it appears wasteful for such mental tools such as “Intermediate notes and drafts” to be discarded and “never meant to be kept.” (Blair 95) Nor does it approach the rationale for note-taking to move “toward the diary based on personal experience,” (Ibid 102) and dismiss the narrowing of thought that notes of “epitome” provide. In fact, reliance on experience suggests undermining the utility already mentioned as the “violence” to produce language entails complete separation from the myriad of thoughts that birthed the utterance. To rely upon experience in one’s notes casts a shadow of impossible recapitulation with the factors producing an utterance; one knows while reading that the full mental structure is irredeemable. (Perhaps this is why Jones held himself from embracing the “full understanding” of Bush and Engelbart and his desire to subsume their thoughts as “dramatize[ation].”)
Hence the provision of the latter note. In it, one sees a cycle of writing to reading to writing. The sheer pragmatic need to engage with a text provided literal space for the reader to write, regardless of the work. Even with the production of manuscripts designed for the act of note-taking, the original feature of margins remained universal. Or, to be pithy, “For as long as there has been writing, there have been readers who follow along and ‘write back.’” (Jones), regardless of the need for understanding. Rather than seeing notes as a “transmission of knowledge” (Blair 85), it seems more appropriate to see note-taking as a product of another fundamental aspect of language: conversation. Within these margins, the reader does not seek to solely provide means to understand the text; s/he seeks to answer to the text and, in turn, be understood as well.