The Memex Method

When your commonplace book is a public database

Cory Doctorow


The complex, hand-wired backplane of an electromechanical supercomputer at the Computer History Museum boneyard; it is an impossible tangle of wires joining various subassemblies.

I’ve been a blogger for a little more than 20 years and in that time I’ve written a little more than 20 books: novels for adults; novels for teens; short story collections; essay collections; graphic novels for adults, highschoolers and middle-schoolers; a picture-book for small children, and book-length nonfiction on various subjects. I’ve written and delivered some hundreds of speeches as well, for several kinds of technical and non-technical audience, as well as for young kids and teens.

Over that same period, I’ve published many millions of words of work in the form of blog-posts. Far from competing with my “serious” writing time, blogging has enabled me to write an objectively large quantity of well-regarded, commercially and critically successful prose that has made many readers happy enough that they were moved to tell me about it — and to inspire some readers to rethink their careers and lives based on how my work made them feel.

There’s a version of the “why writers should blog” story that is tawdry and mercenary: “Blog,” the story goes, “and you will build a brand and a platform that you can use to promote your work.”

Virtually every sentence that contains the word “brand” is bullshit, and that one is no exception.

A commonplace book

Writers have kept notebooks since time immemorial. The auctorial equivalent to the artist’s sketchbook is the “commonplace book,” which can contain everything from newspaper clippings to grocery lists to attempts to capture those inspirational bolts out of the blue.

I’m sure that somewhere out there, there is a writer who is far more disciplined than I am, whose commonplace books are legible, carefully indexed, and comprehensive. My private notebooks are unreadable, disorganized messes, written with such appalling penmanship that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that they’re even written in English.

Thankfully, nearly my entire writing life has been digital. My computer scientist father introduced me to my first Apple ][+ in 1979, when I was eight years old, and I’ve been using digital systems to write, refine, and reference my writing ever since.