Media and Metamorphosis: On Notes and Books

“Once as I looked up I saw a big, pure drop of rain slip from leaf to leaf of a clamatis vine.  The thought occurred to me that it was just such quick, unexpected, commonplace, specific things that poets jot down in their note-books.”

- Wallace Stevens, Journal


The recent publication of Nabokov’s final, uncompleted novel, The Original of Laura (Knopf 2008), as a book of facsimile note cards was a timely reminder of the tangled history of the relationship between the book and the note.

The Original of Laura ©Dimitri Nabokov

In its loving reproduction of the authors’ note cards in codex form, The Original of Laura performed, at a profoundly visual and tactile level, a morphological theory of media – that notes could become books, indeed that these two very different forms of writing could in fact be synonymous with one another.  But in the cards’ perforation – one of the most inspired publishing decisions of this our late age of print – the note cards’ possible removal from the book also drew attention to the hole in the book…that was the note.  Without notes, so Laura tells us, we have no books.

The Original of Laura ©Dimitri Nabokov

When Goethe dumped a bag of notes on a table in response to the question, “Where is Faust?”[fn]Ernst Robert Curtius, “Goethe as Administrator,” Essays on European Literature, trans. Michael Kowal (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973) 58-72.[/fn]; when Coleridge invented the genre of the published “Marginalia,” swiftly followed by Edgar Allen Poe in the Democratic Review; when Benjamin created his file-folder monument, Das Passagen-Werk; Arno Schmidt began using note-card cases from which would emerge bibliographic monstrosities like his elephantine novel, Zettels Traum [The Dream of Notes] (1970); or Ann Carson reimagined the book itself as a box containing one long fold-out card of facsimiles of notes about her recently deceased brother in Nox (2010); or even the new website Things in Books that records all of the scraps of paper (and much more) found in books across the world – these are all different ways that individuals over the past two centuries have explored the relationship between the technology of the note and that of the codex, to understand how our notes grow into, out of, alongside of, or simply in our books.

Arno Schmidt, Zettelkasten ©Arno-Schmidt-Stiftung

In thinking about this relationship between notes and books, and the various movements between them, I am interested in addressing the larger question of what happens today when our notes and our books increasingly belong to the same medium.  Of course we will continue, in Wallace Stevens’ word, to “jot” down our ideas on random slips of paper, as Goethe did on theater notices while drafting the last novella of his life.[fn]GSA 25/W2002.[/fn]

But I think it is fair to say that for many of us much of our note-taking is done on the same medium as our book writing – and here is where our current moment strikes me as crucially different – and our book reading.  As we gradually move to a bookish world that is no longer exclusively defined by the printed book (if it ever was), my question is what happens to this lost sense of metamorphosis surrounding composition – when “all is note” we might say?


In the Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv, collection number 25, signature W 1990, there resides the following leaf of paper, the size of a folio sheet folded into fourths.

GSA 25/W1990

It consists of a list of sixty points of keywords down the first and third columns, with annotations in the second and fourth, the whole of which has been crossed out with numerous dashes.  The numbered keywords (“1. Hazy Morning,” “2. Hunters assembled,” “3. Departure”, etc.) were to provide the framework for the narrative of Goethe’s last novella, “Novella.”

Goethe’s cancelled list of keywords tells us many things about the nature of note taking in general and its relationship to writing books more specifically.  In that columnar structure that would become increasingly common to Goethe’s late writing practices we can see just how important the visualization of writing was prior to narration.  Synopsis preceded narration, a fact that would become very apparent, for example, in Stendhal’s unpublished autobiography, Vie de Henry Brulard (1835/36), in which his self-narrative is intermingled with topographical views of the childhood places he discusses.  

Vie de Henry Brulard
, Les Bibliothèques municipales de Grenoble, 1:248

Are these navigational aides for the writer or illustrations for the reader?  Either way, the attempt to “take it all in” in a single image was, for Romantic writers, one of the note’s crucial functions as an antecedent to the serial unfolding of bibliographic narrative.  As Samuel Coleridge would write in his notebooks, “Without drawing I feel myself but half invested in language.”[fn]Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn (London: Routledge, 1957), vol. 1, §1554.[/fn] Nowhere was this idea more iconically on display than in Goethe’s double-helix notation that accompanied his life-shaping aperçu, “Alles ist Blat [All is leaf/sheet].”[fn]The spelling of Blat is in the original.  See GSA 26/LV,13, Bl. 166v.[/fn] The entanglement of text and image in Goethe’s thought was enacted in those doubled, entangled turns of the handwritten note’s “illustration.”

GSA 26/LV,13, Bl. 166v

If the note served Romantic writers with a crucially visual dimension to their writing, it also served the exact opposite function of non-visualization through the practice of cancellation.  The note was above all else a space of non-knowledge, a place where we undo ideas (“because the mind of the reader,” writes Poe in his “Marginalia,” “wishes to unburthen itself of a thought”[fn]E.A. Poe, “Marginalia,” Democratic Review 14 (November 1844): 484, emphasis in original.  Or as Poe would later write in the same article, “Just as the goodness of your true pun is in the direct ratio of its intolerability, so is nonsense the essential sense of the Marginal Note” (485).[/fn]).  In Goethe’s leaf of numbered keywords there was a tremendous investment in those marks of crossing-out – why were there so many of them?  Nabokov may have achieved the apex of this art of cancellation in a note included in Laura, where we see him working through synonyms of “erasure” in which one of the words is itself scribbled out.  

The Original of Laura ©Dimitri Nabokov

I am interested in the difference between the cross-out in Goethe – where what is underneath is left to view – and the scribble in Nabokov – where the idea is fully occluded from view (but not the act of its having once been thought).  When we think about taking notes with our computers today, however much hard drives preserve our writing in multiple different states (as Matthew Kirschenbaum has artfully reminded us),[fn]Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008).[/fn] it seems a far cry from the layering of assertion and cancellation possible with the technologies of pen and paper that comprise the “note.”

There is one final feature to Goethe’s note that I think brings into view this larger dynamic of presence and absence that seems to be one of the key ways of thinking about the note.  And that is its legibility.  What strikes me as unique about Goethe’s late note-taking practices – which it should be added often occurred through the mediated relationship with a secretary to whom he dictated his ideas – is the archival identity that his notes began to assume.  The crossed-out list of sixty keywords would be replaced on the same day by this beautifully rendered list of 107 keywords in two folio sheets.  

GSA 25/W1992 Bl. 1

The note produced in “Reinschrift” or “fair copy” becomes an end in itself, not a scrap of cancellations that will itself be cancelled by its subsequent appearance in print.  There is an important element of surplus to the note here, a remainder that cannot be incorporated into the printed book, a fact beautifully on display (illegible in reproduction) in the way the handwritten columns are bounded by folds in the paper, a practice that became commonplace to Goethe’s late note taking.  The note, differentiated through its calligraphic formality from the printed page it would become, is also internally differentiated within itself.  In passing from note to book something was necessarily left behind, a something that had to remain legible, however, if we were to understand the way writing in books emerged in time.  Nothing seemed to argue more forcefully for the morphological relationship between notes and books than this fair copy list of keywords bound by the fold.


For early-nineteenth-century writers, note-taking would arguably emerge as the idealized form of writing.  More than any other scriptural practice, the note seemed to embody the most basic priorities of what we have come to call Romantic knowledge, whether understood as play, negativity, becoming, the momentary or a “progressive universal Poesie.”  The fluidity of the handwritten note, the ephemerality of its surfaces, the liminality of its legibility between script, scribble, and image, its promise to transcend mediality itself all contributed to the note’s preeminence as a space of Romantic thought.  As Stendhal wrote in a note on the messiness of his handwriting: “Writing: this is how I write when my thoughts are treading on my heels. If I write well, I waste them.”[fn]Vie de Henry Brulard, Les Bibliothèques municipales de Grenoble, vol. 2:782.[/fn] The note captured the speed of human thought.

When we study the note today we are in many ways thus stepping into and then out of the shadow of Romanticism.[fn]This cluster is, as I see it, thus genealogically related, albeit in a significantly more critical fashion, to the recent turn in literary history towards marginalia studies and before that text-genetic criticism and in the history of science to the turn to “the bench” and scientific notebooks, trends which seem deeply indebted to this Romantic legacy.  For a different understanding of the place of handwritten notes within intersubjective networks of readers during the Romantic period see Michelle Levy, Family Authorship and Romantic Print Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2008) and Andrew Piper, “The Art of Sharing: Reading in the Romantic Miscellany,” Bookish Histories: Books, Literature, and Commercial Modernity, 1700-1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2009) 126-147.[/fn] Rather than reify the note as a kind of privileged space of a romantically inspired theory of knowledge – a reenactment of the mediological nostalgia that was also at the heart of an early-nineteenth-century world of increasingly reproducible objects – I think when we look at the relationship between notes and books we gain a more critical sense of the specificity of the note’s meaning, both then and now.  Goethe’s fair-copy leaf is significant because it shows us, as materially as one can in a scan of a photocopy of a microfilm of a piece of paper, how different digital note-taking is from the pen and paper kind.[fn]I want to emphasize the way the difficulties of reproduction surrounding the critical study of the note is not just an accident of scholarly method but an important component of our understanding of the note as an articulation of difference.  The mediations surrounding “note studies” is part of our knowledge of notes.[/fn] I don’t just mean in terms of the corporal differences between clutching a pointed object and moving one’s clenched hand over a limited textured surface while one’s back is strongly curved, one’s head is slightly askew, and one’s eyes stare at the point of contact versus sitting upright, staring straight ahead while one’s fingers dance up and down in the peripheral field of one’s vision on a variegated plastic surface – although that alone strikes me as significant enough (the crumpledness of note taking versus the uprightness and divisions of note typing).

The Emigrants
p. 255 ©W.G. Sebald

Rather, it is the sheer material difference between penned paper and printed paper that mattered to Goethe, a difference that showed us something about the nature of thought and what it meant to think about nature.  Where many of his contemporaries were hard at work incorporating the manuscriptural note into the printed page – making print more note-like as in Poe’s printing of his marginalia or Novalis’ equation of the printed note as a kind of pollination – for Goethe notes were as much sediments as they were seeds.  They showed us the differences that inhered in ideas and forms, the insurmountable remainders of life.  

When we move from notes on computers, whether in Devonthink, remediated post-it notes, or plain old word documents, to books on computers, whether as pdf, ePub,, or iBook, where will this sense of the morphology, the difference of ideas reside?[fn]Benjamin already intuited this potential obsolescence of the book between note-taking systems when he wrote: “The card index marks the conquest of three-dimensional writing, and so presents an astonishing counterpoint to the three-dimensionality of script in its original form as rune or knot notation. (And today the book is already, as the present mode of scholarly production demonstrates, an outdated mediation between two different filing systems.  For everything that matters is to be found in the card box of the researcher who wrote it, and the scholar studying it assimilates it into his own card index.)”  Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 1996) 1: 456.[/fn] As Nabokov’s The Original of Laura so visibly showed us, can there be “books” without “notes”?  Perhaps the point of the printed book today is that, just as in a world of handwritten notes, in a world of digital notes the printed book will continue to argue for the morphological nature of writing – that writing, like thought, nature, and the self, must be thought of morphologically as change in time in order to capture the larger truth of who we are and the world we inhabit.  Without these material articulations of stadial difference we lose a key piece of knowledge of the world.


Thanks John.  But one of the things that I was drawn to was the way Goethe's notes, for example, are increasingly imagined to have the same audience as his "finished" works.  That is one of the arguments of the period more generally, the increasing publicity (and value) of such private spaces of thought.  The visual and medial difference between these forms of writing then becomes a performance of difference within writing itself, which strikes me as very important for thinking about the meaning of something like print v. digital writing media.

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