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Conversations with John Steinbeck by Thomas C. Fensch

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Conversations with John Steinbeck

But how do we deal with this omnium gatherum when we have got it? Macaulay claimed that his memory was good enough to enable him to write out the whole of Paradise Lost. But when preparing his History of England , he made extensive notes in a multitude of pocketbooks of every shape and colour. Scholars have always made notes. The most primitive way of absorbing a text is to write on the book itself.


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It was common for Renaissance readers to mark key passages by underlining them or drawing lines and pointing fingers in the margin — the early modern equivalent of the yellow highlighter. Newton used to turn down the corners of the pages of his books so that they pointed to the exact passage he wished to recall.

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Trevelyan; it had originally belonged to Macaulay, who had drawn a line all the way down the margin of every page as he read it, no doubt committing the whole to memory. The pencilled dots in the margin of many books in the Codrington Library at All Souls are certain evidence that A. Rowse was there before you.

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My old tutor, Christopher Hill, used to pencil on the back endpaper of his books a list of the pages and topics which had caught his attention. He rubbed out his notes if he sold the book, but not always very thoroughly, so one can usually recognise a volume which belonged to him. More than one Renaissance scholar cut and pasted in this way, sometimes even from manuscripts.

It enabled them to accumulate material which it would have taken months to transcribe.

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Nowadays, we have less incentive to carve up books because we have photocopiers and digital cameras, and can download material from the internet. But historians still make newspaper cuttings. He had drawn the designe of the book into chapters, etc. I have always been impressed by those academics who can sit impassively through a complex lecture by some visiting luminary without finding it necessary to make a single note, even a furtive one on the back of an envelope.

In the end, we all have to make excerpts from the books and documents we read. In the 16th and 17th centuries, scholars tended to read books in an extrapolatory way, selecting passages to be memorised or copied into common-place books. Sometimes they kept their excerpts in the order in which they came across them. More usually, they tried to arrange them under predetermined headings: virtues and vices, perhaps, or branches of knowledge. Properly organised, a good collection of extracts provided a reserve of quotations and aphorisms which could be used to support an argument or adorn a literary composition.

These compilations were not necessarily a preparation for writing, but could become ends in themselves. But they also enabled students to organise and retrieve their data. The art of making excerpts ars excerpendi was an essential scholarly technique.

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The great limitation of the commonplace book was its inflexibility. Since each excerpt was entered in the book under a single heading, it could not be moved around thereafter. Noel Malcolm has described the system invented by the country clergyman Thomas Harrison, who explained it to Charles I during a two-hour conversation in It involved writing excerpts on small pieces of paper, which were then stuck onto hooks attached to metal plates bearing alphabeticised subject headings.

This was a great advance, because it meant that the excerpted passages could be repeatedly rearranged to fit different conceptual schemes. By using cards of uniform size, punching holes in the margin and assigning different categories to each hole, it became possible, with the aid of a knitting needle, to locate all cards containing material related to any particular category. These various techniques were codified in the guides to research which proliferated with the rise of academic history-writing. In one of the most influential, the Introduction to the Study of History by the French historians Charles Langlois and Charles Seignobos, the authors warn that history is more encumbered with detail than any other form of academic writing and that those who write it must have those details under control.

The best way of proceeding, they say, is to collect material on separate slips of paper fiches , each furnished with a precise indication of their origin; a separate record should be kept of the sources consulted and the abbreviations used to identify them on the slips. If a passage is interesting from several different points of view, then it should be copied out several times on different slips.

Before the Xerox machine, this was a labour-intensive counsel of perfection; and it is no wonder that many of the great 19th-century historians employed professional copyists. What was a fact? And what made it one fact? Surely most facts were compound. How would I know when I had reached bedrock, the ultimate, unsplittable atomic fact?


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  • Nobody gave me any such instructions when I began research in the s. I read neither Beatrice Webb nor Langlois and Seignobos until many years later, by which time my working habits had ossified. When I did, though, I was reassured to see that, in a slipshod sort of way, I had arrived at something vaguely approximating to their prescriptions. I began by committing the basic error of writing my notes on both sides of the page. I soon learned not to do that, but I continued to copy excerpts into notebooks in the order in which I encountered them.

    Much later, I discovered that it was preferable to enter passages under appropriate headings. Eventually, I realised that notes should be kept in a loose form which was flexible enough to permit their endless rearrangement.


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