Thomas W. Hodgkinson

Much ado about noting

The Daily Telegraph, October 2023

I’m in the middle of writing a novel about a writer who compulsively makes notes. Trouble is, I find myself spending too much time making notes about it and not enough time writing it.

This can be a hard cycle to break. Yet as Roland Allen shows in his restless, arresting new history of the notebook—which I have carefully noted and annotated—the note-making habit is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it has made a transformative, and practically limitless, contribution to civilisation.

Capitalism? It got a boost from the new availability of paper notebooks in 13th century Florence, which facilitated book-keeping. The Renaissance? It was born out of sketchbooks, which allowed the likes of Cimabue and Giotto to prepare for and achieve a new level of realism in their works. Elizabethan drama? This, too, owes a debt to the note. 16th century schoolchildren kept commonplace books: repositories for miscellaneous quotes, including long excerpts from classical authors, which formed the basis for some of Shakespeare’s greatest scenes.

Much ado about noting, you might say. Exactly so, although Allen could have made more of Hamlet. The fame of that play rests at least in part on the way it dramatises thought. We see this not only in the soliloquies but also when the hero cries out, “My tables! Meet it is I set it down, that a man may smile and smile and be a villain.” By “tables”, he means “table-books”, the Elizabethan name for a type of commonplace book. As he says those words, he takes out a notebook and writes in it, giving us a vision to rival man-with-skull: man-with-notebook.  

Allen’s history is itself a commonplace book of sorts. Beautifully produced, with stylus-shaped dinkuses and lined endpapers to get you in the mood, it is packed with a wonderful range of insights and anecdotes. Notebooks have not only cemented friendships, we learn, as in the alba amicorum, or “friendship books”, in which 17th century Dutchmen showed their affection by adding their signatures along with sketches and snippets of poetry. They have also helped people work through trauma by noting their memories and feelings, using the technique known as expressive writing. And they have empowered the work of some of the greatest writers of the modern era. 

By 1956, Ernest Hemingway was washed-up as an author. Decades of drinking had taken their toll. During a no doubt boozy lunch at the Ritz in Paris, the hotel’s owner, Charley Ritz, told the novelist that they had found an old trunk of his in the basement. Hemingway had no memory of having left it there. They lugged it out, opened it up, and found inside menus and memos, receipts and racing forms, equipment for skiing, hunting and fishing, and two stacks of old notebooks from his days as a young writer living in Paris in the 1920s. “The notebooks!” Hemingway exclaimed in delight. “So that’s where they were! Enfin!” He was able to use these notes to write his last book of quality, the memoir A Moveable Feast

This gives a sense of the secondary essential use of the notebook: to act as an aide-mémoire, when you go back to it. But what about the primary use? Noting requires you to select and shape information. It is, in other words, part of the process of thought. Hamlet scribbling in his notebook is Hamlet thinking. 

Allen only really turns to this aspect in the final pages of his book, when he zeroes in on a philosophical paper entitled The Extended Mind, which was published in 1999 by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. The most cited philosophical paper of the 1990s, it argues that notebooks are literally extensions of the brain. That’s one way to put it. Yet the perception that noting is an under-appreciated stage in thought—as talking, arguably, is too—is at the heart of Allen’s theme. His subtitle, which describes noting as “thinking on paper”, suggests that he is well aware of this, which makes it strange that he leaves it so late. 

However this may be, he has written a fine book on a fabulous subject—and a rather canny one, too. Book reviewers, being inveterate note-makers, will inevitably feel drawn to it.