Blog Post

Is the Book a Social Network?

In Bonnie Mak's "History of the Book" graduate seminar yesterday morning, we spent some time discussing a lecture by Johanna Drucker Thursday evening (I was unfortunately unable to attend the lecture, though I hear it may be posted to the IPRH website sometime soon).  One student who attended mentioned an interesting question Drucker raised: Is the book a social networking site?

We then, unrelatedly, turned our focus to the medieval and early modern practice of commonplacing, where a reader would draw out and record quotations from texts for contemplation and argument.  (For an interesting recent variation on this practice, see the preface to Greil Marcus's The Shape of Things to Come.)  Professor Mak pointed to another question that has been raised about the links between different forms of information-circulation: Are blogs contemporary commonplace books?

I was inspired to combine the two questions and use this entry to commonplace on the topic of the books's social relations.  Like a good early modern reader, I may return to this topic to make an argument, drawing on the quotations I have amassed here.  But for now, I will record for current contemplation my potential, future arsenal.  You may, of course, be able to discern an argument from my choices. 

So here is my commonplace entry on to what extent books are social networks:


"Not words of routine this song of mine, / But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring; / This printed and bound bookbut the printer and the printing-office boy?" -Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

"Printing encouraged forms of combinatory activity which were social as well as intellectual."  -Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change

"The development of print should not be ascribed primarily to individual actions but to collective practices." -Adrian Johns, How to Acknowledge a Revolution

"[L]iteracy is inherently a social skill." -Leah Price, Reading: The State of the Discipline

"Reading must not be wanting at the table of the brethren when they are eating." -The Rule of St. Benedict

"About this time, our club meeting, not at a tavern, but in a little room, set apart for that purpose, a proposition was made by me, that, since our books were often referrd to in our disquisitions upon the queries, it might be convenient to have them altogether where we met; and by thus clubbing our books to a common library, we shouldhave each of us the advantage of using the books of all the other members, which would be nearly as beneficial as if each owned the whole." -Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

"[F]from the outset the familiarity whose vehicle was the written word, the subjectivity that had become fit to print, had in fact become the literature appealing to a wide public of readers.  The privatized individuals coming together to form a public also reflected critically and in public on what they had read, thus contributing to the process of enlightenment which they together promoted." -Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

"Because literary works are fundamentally social rather than personal or psychological products, they do not even acquire an artistic form of being until their engagement with an audience has been determined." -Jerome McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism

"The instances in which Dickens altered his novels in the middle of their serial publication because of sales figures or, even more dramatically, because of fan mail or direct reader response are evidence that, at least for himself and several other successful novelists, the relations between eader and writer could be dialogical, almost conversationally familiar." -Patrick Brantlinger, The Reading Lesson

"[D]ifferent ways of reading defined different but related social practices: solitary reading encouraged personal study and intellectual interchange; reading aloud, combined with interpretation and discussion of what was read, fostered friendship." -Roger Chartier, The Practical Impact of Writing

"In a sense, you might say, what I am trying to think about here are the contemporary costs of reification, both economic and intellectual, within the literary sphere itself and in the discipline of literary studies at a time when the production, circulation, sale, and use of cultural commoditiesis figuring ever more centrally in the range of human activity.   [R]eification condenses and precipitates out from complex social processes, which are always both relational and fluid, only one aspect of what is produced in and through these changing social relations.  When the commodity makes its appearance as the putatively objective distillation of this process, both the sociality and the fluidity of the process have been erased. [W]hat would we learn were we to try to restore greater sociality and fluidity to literary and cultural relations in place of the comfortable autonomism of authors and readers?" -Janice Radway, Whats the Matter with Reception Study?

"Reading a text was a charged somatic experience in which every turn of the page was sensational, from the feel of the flesh and hair side of the parchment on ones fingertips to the lubricious labial mouthing of the written words with ones tongue." -Michael Camille, Sensations of the Page"

"Come closer to me, / Push close my lovers and take the best I possess, / Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess. / This is unfinished business with me ...  how is it with you? / I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper  between us. / I pass so poorly with paper and types .... I must pass with the / contact of bodies and souls." -Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass



This is a really interesting idea; I've never heard of commonplacing before as a distinct practice. If I understand it properly, then there are two practices that I've been involved with lately that come to mind:

1) An art school friend and I were talking about dance (as one is wont to do, I suppose, him being in art school and all) and I remembered a website I had posted a link to on my FaceBook page about a year and a half prior that I wanted to send to him. So, I started digging around my FaceBook links over the last 18 months or so and couldn't find it. Tried turning my links into an RSS feed but the feed only went back about 2 months so that didn't help. I eventually found a reference to it in an email I had sent to someone else (it's here if you're curious), but the amount of work I put into trying to find that little bit of information prompted me to subscribe to my own FaceBook links as an RSS feed so that, should I need to in the future, I could easily reference the random web tidbits I post to FaceBook with obnoxious regularity. These links don't really make up a blog so much as I don't really do much writing, but are more a way for me to keep track of interesting things, things I might want to reference in the future. This, it seems to me, is in the spirit of commonplacing. As is tumblr for anyone who uses that (I'm a personally a fan).

2) I don't know how other people write papers, I'm pretty bad at it, and the only strategy that I've found is useful for me is to actually copy entire passages from the material I'm using. Shorthand has never worked and I'm far too lazy/disorganized to manage any type of database of page references. In the process of my writing, what begins as a gigantic collection of quotes (often around 40 pages) goes through multiple incarnations until all that are left are 8-10 pages of passages that are central to my argument. I then often organize the quotes themselves in the way I want to make the argument in my paper. I don't use actual quotes in my papers any more or less than anyone else, I don't think, but this has become an effective method for me to organize my thoughts and to use previous literature.

Anyway, just a couple thoughts. 


In some ways the blog format reimagines earlier models of commonplacing - in the 16th and 17th centuries the commonplace book has an organizer, a self that is fashioned to some extent by the incorporation of other voices, aphorisms, etc. into one's personal book.  When you read Ben Jonson's commonplace book, you are reading Jonson's Livy, Jonson's Plato, Jonson's Aristotle, etc. - and perhaps this is a slightly misleading example since commonplacing for Jonson seems to have an imagined audience more so than other commonplace books that are predominantly for personal use and re-use, and always of utlitarian value.  The author of a commonplace book assumes a type of a authority over the voices within the book - the voices within it participate almost as accessories in fashioning the commonplace book author's self.

That Chartier quote - "[D]ifferent ways of reading defined different but related social practices: solitary reading encouraged personal study and intellectual interchange; reading aloud, combined with interpretation and discussion of what was read, fostered friendship"  - helps in considering how the blog relates to commonplacing.  Of course there are different forms of authorship and collaboration in blogs, but they are often managed and organized by an individual that is like a commonplace book author - so that other voices ("comments") are assumed/subordinated into the blogger-self.  I notice a difference in the conception of audience, however - blogs are less private self-fashioning tools than public self-performances.  Blog audiences have the potential to "interchange" and redirect the author.  Maybe the blog "self" is a more open network than the commonplace-book self.


One thing to add here, though - there's much less sense of an authorial voice in a commonplace book than in a blog.  Commonplace books are collages, pieced together from other texts - there is often little sense of editing or appropriation.  Perhaps Renaissance commonplacers are more open selves than I imply above, accustomed as they are to incorporating a great variety of other voices into their private books.