The Electronic Labyrinth

The Commonplace Book

The commonplace book was the bound volume in which aristocratic readers of the Renaissance would copy out their favourite poems from manuscript. It provides another useful model for understanding both the positive and negative aspects of the world of electronic texts in which hypertext exists. On the positive side, the "interactive" nature of the commonplace book, the practice of copying out favourite passages to be added to a personal anthology (an anthology which in a sense constitutes a new work on to its own), emphasizes the active role of the reader in the distribution process. One of the benefits of hypertext is that it too may be added to, modified and then re-distributed so that several parallel versions of the same "original" text might be in circulation at any one time.

On the negative side, the similarity between the commonplace book and the electronic text reminds us that the literate reading public seems to be shrinking back to a limited cadre of university-educated "intellectuals." Readership for literature continues to decline not because of the limitations of literacy, but because other mediums of representation--film, video, television--have eroded interest in the written word. It is argued by some proponents of hypertext (in particular, Ted Nelson) that the form represents "a return to literacy, a cure for television stupor, a new Renaissance of ideas and generalist understanding, a grand posterity that does not lose the details which are the final substance of everything" ("How Hypertext (Un)does the Canon" 4).

Nelson's argument, however, is underscored by the inherent elitism which made possible the person-to-person distribution of the commonplace book: only those who can afford not only the hardware, but the knowledge required for navigating and managing the potentially unlimited oceans of data available in the docuverse will be able to participate in it. In this I would include not simply technological knowledge, but the social knowledge, the inculcation in an ideological system which understands and promotes information as power.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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