If Mark Twain Had a Laptop



I look down at my MacBook’s desktop, and staring back at me is a monster. A jumble of incomprehensible and expanding piles of electronic icons spill and shuffle around as if the sorter cubbies on top of a roll top desk had just collapsed. I think, if Mark Twain had a laptop, this is what it would have looked like.

The mess drives me nuts. I lie to myself and say that’s because simplicity and order are the core of efficiency, but the fact is it’s more about me. At some very low threshold of complexity I can simply no longer keep track of all the piles in my head and an anxiety fit of organization and purging follows. I do that until a new equilibrium level of simplicity is reached, one that I can handle. But it makes me wonder if we are better off with our PCs, and all the digitalization that they provide. I mean these machines and their digital software systems were supposed to be better than piles and piles of paper, right?


The nice thing about the physicality of books, printed pdfs, and paper journals is their hard edged presence and volume. Having them piled up around you reminds you of things; like how much you’ve done, and how much you need to do. That volume of paper communicates what you have to do, and more importantly, it gives you a gauge of what you can do. 

Of course the physical nature of a book is also nice because it makes them easy to ‘auto sort’ to borrow a phrase from the systems people. Piles become projects, and sequential piles become workflows – a pile over there for research on a book topic, another for information on developing as a writer, one over there in anticipation of that trip to the Azores, that should it ever occur will benefit greatly from the decade of background reading accumulating in its pile. 

But while the work flow order of book piles seems so self evident, many seem hell bent on eradicating it. A world of electronic indexes, Web 2.0 (and 1.0) systems abound for making list of books, journals and articles, with notes, tags, cross links, all manner of electronic defacements. These systems are arguably more functional than that pile of volumes on Kant over there that may someday support a writing project, but I don’t know. One can only take in so much prose during a given period of time. Physical books makes that process manageable. 

Where the database systems all fail, and the book pile system gloriously triumphs, is in this ‘reality of effort’ category. The computer tools are deceptive. A database list of readings can always accommodate one more pdf, one more book entry, or one more group of sources, making the mounting level of reading seem small and easy to handle because the database manages it all so efficiently. “Go ahead, add one, two or a few hundred more items to the reading list”, they seem to say, “I can handle it”. The question is whether you can. You don’t realize just how much work that neat little list really represents.

But using the book pile system, there is nothing more certain to end the research phase of a project and begin the reading phase than a desk, floor and reading chair so full that they can not take one more book without the whole thing collapsing and burying the writer in an avalanche of hardcovers. Using the book pile method ensures that at some point the writer must go from collecting to reading simply because of the restraint of physical space. 

So as useful as Sente, Zotero, Pages, EndNote, OneNote, DEVONThink, Together and Journler are, there is nothing more functional to getting on with your work than a physical pile of books.



(credit: Thanks to manyhighways for pics from the Mark Twain House. They show Mark Twain’s desk today -neatened up by the curators- and his sorter)

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