Have you sometimes marveled at my ability to connect disparate ideas? Have you ever admiringly wondered how I manage to pull oblique references and quotations from memory? Well, I appreciate the compliment, even if I had to put the thought in your head myself. The short explanation would be that I’m just a genius that way. But even genius requires a lot of structures, systems, and sheer labor to appear effortless. The truth is, I often experience a distant relative of staircase wit, where I belatedly realize that something I casually read in passing weeks ago is now especially germane to a point I want to make, but I have no clear recollection of where I saw it, and I don’t remember enough direct quotes or keywords to make a Google search, or even a browser history search, useful. You have no idea how many total hours I’ve spent over the years while working on posts simply groping in the dark to find a precise link or quotation again.
The Lady of the House introduced me to a browser add-on called Memex which I’m already finding amazingly useful. Obviously, there are lots of ways to save links and notes from your online browsing. I have a “reference” folder in my email where I have things stored. I have a notepad app on my phone where I save epigrams, snippets of poetry, song lyrics, and other striking phrases that I’d like to use as post titles someday. I even have a private site that I use as sort of an online attic for storing links and pasting excerpts. But what I like about Memex is that it’s a perfect amanuensis — always immediately at hand to take dictation, but completely unobtrusive otherwise. The toolbar hides in the right margin of your screen, unless you put your cursor over there to make it pop out. It automatically indexes the sites you visit, so if all I remember is an author’s name, or an isolated word or phrase, I can search from the dashboard and find which page it was on. For example, I just searched for “Yuval” as a test, and saw the link to the New Atlantis where I read Yuval Levin’s article (and also saw that he must have had an article linked on RealClearBooks, which I visited earlier). My browser history, by contrast, doesn’t bring up any results; it only keeps a record of URLs visited.
Another example: last week, Patrick Kurp quoted a passage from Evelyn Waugh. Shortly after that, I saw a different article that used the same quotation, with an additional line that struck me as especially relevant: “There is no more agreeable position than that of dissident from a stable society. Theirs are all the solid advantages of other people’s creation and preservation, and all the fun of detecting hypocrisies and inconsistencies.” For a few days, that simmered in my brain stew, until I decided that I would probably want to keep that reference on hand for future use. Somehow, though, I couldn’t find where I had seen it. I thought it had been in a post on National Review, but a search there didn’t turn anything up. In just a few days, I’d somehow managed to lose track of it. My browser history was again no help. I didn’t remember enough of the passage verbatim, just the basic idea of being a dissident in a…wealthy? secure? civilized? society. Finally, I managed to string enough keywords together to find it in a Google search. Then I highlighted the text, as you normally do to copy and paste, but in this case, it also brought up Memex’s tiny little taskbar underneath the passage with its “highlight” and “annotate” buttons. By using the highlighter, it saved both the link and the relevant text as a note on my dashboard. Now, even if I totally forget about that quotation, I can always think, “Hey, didn’t Evelyn Waugh once say something incisive about spoiled, privileged cultural critics…? What was that again…?”, and with a quick search in Memex for “Waugh” or “dissident,” I can have it right there. So now, anytime I see something that strikes me as even remotely worth noting, I can summon my little digital assistant and trust that it will be safely stored away.
Anyway, if that sounds useful to you, give it a try. I really like it.