The Surprisingly Interesting History of Note-Taking

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Fascinating article by Jenny Schuessler of the New York Times about “Take Note,” a conference on the history of note-taking sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study:

“‘The note is the record a historian has of past reading,’ said Ann Blair, a professor of history at Harvard and one of the conference organizers. ‘What is reading, after all? Even if you look introspectively, it’s hard to really know what you’re taking away at any given time. But notes give us hope of getting close to an intellectual process.’

Not that note-taking was presumed to be an entirely wholesome activity. During the first panel, when asked if enthusiastic note-takers weren’t more like’“compulsive hoarders,’ Peter Burke, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Cambridge in England, recalled one of his own teachers warning that any student caught taking notes would be sent out of the classroom for inattention . . .

In a talk on note-taking in Shakespeare’s time, Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University, described the way people carried ‘table books,’ with specially treated erasable pages, to sermons and plays, not just to take notes but to advertise themselves as note-takers — much as an iPad might today. (‘They said you are highly literate, and wish to write all the time,’ she said.)

Few table-book notes survive, but the printed record bears traces of the controversies they sometimes caused. They gave listeners a sense of ownership, Ms. Stern said, much to the exasperation of ministers and playwrights who inveighed against unauthorized texts published from audience notes. Such people, Ben Jonson wrote in 1600, “where’er they sit concealed, let them know, the author defies them and their writing-tables.”

But Ms. Stern also sees evidence that some playwrights wrote with table-book-toting audiences in mind, hoping that much-copied and repeated lines would serve as publicity. ‘They were possibly thinking in sound-bitey terms,’ she said.” (Read more here.)

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