Is Google a Commonplace Book?

Look closely at the photo. It’s a page (9th) of a Google search for “Search Engine.” Note at the top it shows 81-90 of 87,600,000 listings that were obtained by Google in lightning speed--0.07 seconds.

Is that page or any of those that precede or follow it a commonplace book? Steven Johnson in his lecture The Glass Box and The Commonplace Book says it is:

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.

To understand Johnson’s claim consider the various meanings of commonplace book. There seem to me to be three. The first refers to a set of quotations from a text that follow one another sequentially without any structure or organization. An example is the blog simply known as Commonplace Book that posts from time to time a referenced quotation without a comment or note.

The second meaning is the one I follow in my commonplace book where I list the passages I have made note of in each of the books or articles I read. After I have finished reading the work, I type in a Word document a heading with the name of the author followed by the title of the text. I follow this with each of the passages I’ve marked. My commonplace book consists now of well over 600 typed written, single spaced pages of such passages.

Thus, it isn’t organized in any systematic fashion, say by subject matter, theme, or category. That has to be done subsequently during a time-consuming analysis. While I’ve done that for the first 300 pages, the second remains a task for the future. I am hoping to find a method that will be simpler and more efficient than the one I employed initially.

I might have used the approach John Locke used as long ago as 1652 in A New Method of Making Commonplace Books that represents the third and most complete meaning of the term. Locke developed an elaborate system for indexing and categorizing the contents of his commonplace book by creating at the outset an index keyed to each letter of the alphabet that was, in turn, divided into five separate sections corresponding to one of the five vowels. He explained his procedure this way:

When I meet with any thing that I think fit to put into my Common-Place-Book, I first find a proper head. Suppose for example, that the Head be EPISTOLA, I look into the Index for the first Letter and the following Vowel which in this instance are E.I. If in the space marked E. there is any number, That directs me to the Page designed for words that begin with an E and whose first Vowel, after the initial Letter, is I. I must then write under the word EPISTOLA in that Page what I have to remark.

Locke did not begin with a pre-determined set of topics or “heads” as he referred to them; instead, they were created during the course of his readings. They included a broad array of themes followed by the passage he selected to fit the theme, and a comment of his own. This sounds like a commonplace book at his best. He not only copied passages but he classified, indexed, and annotated them at the same time. I know of no one who keeps a commonplace book in this manner today. It really isn’t that intricate, although it clearly takes a good deal more time than the two other methods. It also encourages the commonplacer to identify the reason the passage was selected in the first place.

Does a Google search employ this method? In citing Locke’s example, Johnson claims that is precisely what its algorithm does and it does so almost instantly. However, every commonplace book I know about has been created by a real person. Although the Google algorithm performs some of the same functions, insofar as I can tell, it is not such a creature.

On review, I should have included the “real person” component to the commonplace book concept. So while a Google search does provide a set of references (without form or structure), still it is not generated from the reading experience of an individual reader. And while it does provide a list of citations with a brief description (snippet) for the specific search phrase, it doesn’t index them or organize the sub-set in any particular way. Rather they are enumerated one after the other without regard to informative value, author or quality. If I really stick with a Google search for page after page, I am often startled to find the very document I want or the one that is most useful a good many pages beyond the initial one.

Johnson’s really fine lecture has stimulated me to think further about the commonplace book concept, as well a new way of viewing the results of a Google search. It seems to me such a results page or cluster of pages might be viewed as a second or third order variation of a commonplace book, something in between the first and second forms I have described.

It is more a remixing, recombination of ideas and references from a vast range of sources, as in a collage or cento, that are almost miraculously put together in not much more than a nanosecond. But a cento is not a commonplace book in the strict sense of the term, although it may be derived from one.

Johnson ends this portion of his lecture optimistically: “But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape.”