Your Outboard Memory

A few years ago, when e-books were finally starting to creep into the mainstream, I constantly found myself in conversations with friends about the viability of this new form of reading. They’d give me long arguments about the way e-books lacked the tactile charms and easy skimmability of page-bound texts, and how screen reading threatened to distract us from the linear focus of the written word.

I’d nod my head, and say: “Yes, yes, all this is true. But whatever the drawbacks of digital books might be, where research is concerned, those drawbacks are meaningless next to the one crippling limitation of print. I’ve got a library of thousands of books surrounding me in my house. They are undeniably beautiful objects, and delightful to read. But I can’t search any of them.”

The lack of search had long bothered me, because early in my life as a writer (before the Web came along, in fact) I had been curating digital archives of passages. I first got into this habit while preparing for my orals in grad school. I wanted to ensure that I had a ready supply of crucial scenes or slogans from the 19th-century novels that I could cite from memory during the oral exam, and so I dutifully typed out the fifty or so key passages that I’d underlined multiple times in my reading.

This turned out to be a useful strategy for the orals. (I passed, though never got around to writing my dissertation, in part because the Web distracted me.) But the real benefits came later, months and years after my exam. Those quotes weren’t just a mnemonic device to help me through one big test; they were an archive. They were a way of keeping alive in my brain ideas that had influenced me in the past. In a sense, they were the extroverted version of the spark file that I wrote about at the beginning of this collection. They were another kind of outboard memory: this one for ideas that had originated in other people’s brains.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had inadvertently stumbled across an old and fertile tradition of maintaining a “commonplace book”: a personally curated archive of quotations. (Many years later I discussed this tradition in Where Good Ideas Come From, and in this talk at Columbia’s Journalism School.)

Over time, as the technology advanced, it got easier and easier to search that archive. First Apple added Spotlight to the Mac OS, which enabled me to do lightning quick queries of the internal text of documents (and not just file names.) Then I stumbled across a program called Devonthink, which enabled me to make subtle associative leaps between passages that I’d collected. (I wrote about the way I use Devonthink several times, including this essay in the New York Times Book Review.) Lately, I have migrated over to the Findings service, created by the wonderful NY company, Betaworks, where I am lucky enough to be an advisor.

My ability to search an archive of key quotes improved steadily over the past fifteen years, but the tools for getting the text into digital form was stagnant for much of that period. I tried many methods over the years: after reading through a book, I’d go back and type up all the passages that seemed important to me, which was the most accurate approach, but also the most time-consuming. I had several research assistants who would type up passages, but that required transferring the books physically. I tinkered around with a few OCR options, but nothing ever worked reliably enough.

So when the Kindle came along, one of the first things I wanted to know was whether you could copy and paste text directly from books you were reading. It turned out to be not quite that simple, thanks to the Napster fears of the publishing industry. But the Kindle does let you highlight passages from books, which can then be stored (and searched) online. This ability to capture important clips in real-time as I’m reading a book has probably been the single most important advance in my reading life since the Web came along. It now takes a few seconds to add to the archive of interesting passages that I’ve been assembling for most of my adult life.

The interesting thing is that this extension of my reading memory is happening in public, which means it is swirling around with other people’s reading memories for the first time. When I was writing my new book, Future Perfect, I had collected a long series of quotes from James Scott’s brilliant Seeing Like A State, a book that was absolutely central to my research. But when I went to Findings to figure out the best quote to represent Scott’s argument, the one I ended up using came from another Findings user’s collection. We had both read the same book, but he had picked out a passage that somehow I had missed. That’s the fascinating thing about the outboard brain in the age of social networks. You’re not the only motor in the water.