Note Taking, or Rediscovering the Wheel

3 Apr

I like reading and I read quite a lot. But I am not good at remembering and this deficiency is only made worse by the constant distraction (self-inflicted or not) of online content, social media, apps, push notifications, email and so on. So recently, I started making a concerted effort to take notes of things. The incentive for that was the failed book club – I realized that to be able to comment on what I read, I need to write my thoughts down. Otherwise, I remembered the plot, but all the other more insightful (or simply a bit less obvious) observations went “poof” in a matter of minutes. When I started to write things down, I also thought about them more. Instead of just moving on, I paused to reflect and describe what I felt. And then I started taking similar notes at work, around the house, while taking the kids swimming…

685px-Commonplace_book_mid_17th_centuryI read Where Good Ideas Come From and had an epiphany (or what its author would call serendipity) – I was reinventing the commonplace book. I had never heard of the commonplace book. When I was getting my fill of 19th and 20th century literature and science, I was still in Bulgaria, so the term must have been translated to a “diary” or just plain notebook. But what a fascinating idea. Have a notebook to write things down. Not a digital to-do app, a mind-map tool or an email, but an actual notebook.

What’s my point? I am not sure. What I know is that if I did not have my newly created “commonplace” book, I would probably have already forgotten things like:

  • David Sedaris’ brilliant New Yorker essay on going through the hassle of immigration bureaucracy, let alone this vivid and hilarious:  “The picture in my stolen one [passport] was not half bad. But in the new one I looked like a penis with an old man’s face drawn on on it.”
  • My own reflections on how crowdsourcing resembles the creation of folk art. Grimm’s tales are just the recorded version of a story, to which everyone contributed, changed the plot, the ending, or the name of the prince.
  • How LinkedIn editorial attempts and posts like “5 tips to succeed” and “10 things to avoid” remind me of Dear Abby advice columns for people who are looking for a job or marketers (who else goes to LinkedIn?)

This may sound like rediscovering the wheel. But I bet for the people that actually had forgotten about it, rediscovering the wheel was huge. Bigger than sliced bread. What is sliced bread? Write it down less you forget.

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3 Responses to “Note Taking, or Rediscovering the Wheel”

  1. Adriana April 3, 2013 at 9:58 pm #

    In Spanish we call this a ‘cuaderno de bitacora’ which I guess translates to something like ‘binnacle book’— it came from the note taking practice that ship captain did to keep track of route, plans, weather, observations of their journey, etc. I was taught to keep a bitacora book with me at all times and for many years I was pretty religious about it. Even if I didn’t consult them again, the act of writing down a note had the power to focus my thinking and reflect on what was happening. Stop and smell the ink sort of thing 😛

  2. petalsworth April 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm #

    As age creeps I tend to forget. Need A reminder to carry paper/pen, Notebooks with pretty covers, Moleskin favorites, filled with passing words and annotate and date those scribbles. Reading Where Good Ideas Come From and have enjoyed reading it. Makes me want to find another pretty book and write. Enjoy your writing.

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    […] am writing random things down these days, and last week I just realized that I have compiled a list of smells that are […]

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