"Lyrical Connections"

I am reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. In his chapter on The Slow Hunch he mentions the important role the commonplace book tradition played in the gradual “evolution” of Darwin’s ideas. This surprised and pleased me and while it didn’t exactly render me speechless, it reminded me once again of the unrecognized potential of a person’s commonplace book.

For example, Johnson speaks of the important memory-enhancing powers of maintaining a commonplace book. That is surely one of the principal ways I use it. In 1988 I started keeping an electronic record of notable quotes from the books and articles I had read. Any time I want to recall one of them, all I need to do is “open” my commonplace book document and run a Find search on the book or author in question. This yields a set of passages that I can draw upon in the same way one would use an encyclopedia, article or book review.

Johnson writes, “There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to ‘lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in several pursuits of life.’” This is the way commonplace books were used from Antiquity until the era of the Enlightenment when they reached their peak of popularity as a source of knowledge.

Johnson clearly believes a person’s commonplace book can be an important source of innovations. It stimulates “surprising new links of association” and is a central repository of a “vast miscellany of hunches.” For me the problem has always been how to capture these relationships, what method can be employed. You have to do more than simply review your entries from time to time. A tool for organizing, categorizing, or indexing them is required to locate those new associations.

Johnson reviews John Locke’s scheme. “The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings.”

In practice, Locke’s method entails an ever more complex set of categories (“heads”) to use in assigning each saved passage. With more and more entries the scheme becomes entirely too complex and cumbersome to make much use of. You need a much more sophisticated, speedier system for generating relationships in a commonplace book that becomes increasingly larger as the reader’s collection grows.

Enter the electronic revolution. Johnson describes the way he uses a software program called DEVONthink where he stores all his work—essays, blogs, notes, book chapters, etc.

“DEVONthink features a clever algorithm that detects subtle semantic connections between distinct passages of text. These tools are smart enough to get around the classic search-engine failing of excessive specificity…Modern indexing software like DEVONthink’s learns associations between individual words by tracking the frequency with which words appear near each other. This can create almost lyrical connections between ideas.”

I’ve been searching for this type of software package for years. When I analyzed the 300 pages of Volume 1 of my Commonplace Book, it took me months of going through one page after another to identify its major themes. I lacked the skills to do much more than that.

Volume 2 is currently an equivalent number of pages and waiting to be analyzed. My hope is to somehow capture those “lyrical connections” that Johnson claims DEVONthink can generate. More importantly, can it generate new combinations of passages that are some sense novel or that might be considered original and as Johnson suggests may turn out to be genuinely innovative?

This is the way he does it. He plugs a passage or paragraph into the software and asks it to find other passages in his collection that are similar. Instantly, a set of quotes appears that, in turn, give rise to new ideas whereupon he plugs those into the software for a further search. “Before long a new idea takes shape in my head, built upon the trail of associations the machine has assembled for me.”

Can DEVONthink accomplish something like this with my Commonplace Book? Dream on, Richard.