When I was a young man, I started writing down quotes that I found interesting, inspiring, or funny. I think I was probably inspired by a book my grandpa published when I was twelve, 1001 Great Stories and Quotes. It’s a habit I’ve kept up over the years, though with waxing and waning consistency. When I hear or read something that sparks my interest, I try to record it for future reference.
If a man empties his purse into his head, no man can take it away from him. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.
— Benjamin Franklin, “Poor Richard’s Almanack”
After a year or so, I started keeping the quotes in a notebook dedicated to the purpose. I found it was much easier to reference them there than to sort through my regular journals or loose-leaf notes to find the quote I wanted. I didn’t order or arrange them in any way, other than the order in which I discovered them. This has had its benefits and its detriments.
I love quotations because it is a joy to find thoughts one might have, beautifully expressed with much authority by someone recognized wiser than oneself.
— Marlene Dietrich
One of the fun little bits is to go through them and see them in the order I wrote them down. Since I remember roughly when I wrote some of them, I can estimate about what time in my life that particular quote seemed important. As I now begin the process of transferring them to a new, more durable notebook, I am careful to keep them in the same order and to not remove any of them; even if I find them silly or unimportant now. When I look back later, it is almost a sort of diary or journal to see the things that struck me as important or deep as a teenager. It’s enjoyable to get an indirect peek back into my mind at those stages.
Contrariwise, the most annoying thing is probably that, with no organizing structure, it is difficult to find a specific quote. If I know the exact quote I am looking for, I have no real way to find it quickly unless I can remember when I first encountered it. It also has the downside of not being able to find related quotes easily. If quotes were grouped by topic, I would be able to look up one quote about, let’s say, quotations and there would be other quotes about quotations nearby. Instead, with them lacking any arrangement other than by date of discovery, it can certainly be annoying when I know exactly what I’m looking for. In order to navigate right to what I want, I would need to know roughly when I wrote it down and roughly the order of all the other quotes.
I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
But this is also its greatest strength, in my opinion. Since I am forced to skim through everything to find what I want, I am constantly experiencing the joy of rediscovery as I find quotes I had copied down and forgotten about. The joy of serendipity more than outweighs the inconveniences in finding what I wanted.
It seems to me that we often make things too easy on ourselves. For a while, I used an app on my phone to collect and organize my quotes. It was really nice and I loved it. When the app died, I was upset at first, but I’m really grateful now. It had made finding the exact quote I wanted so easy that I had completely lost the serendipitous discovery. As a result, I ended up returning to the same handful of quotes because those were the ones that came to memory. Since switching back to a physical notebook, I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been looking for a quote and stopped because I ran into a quote I had completely forgotten about; which spoke to me more in the moment than the quote for which I started searching.
This experience is worth too much to me. I want to go back to a system where I can find my saved quotes more readily, but I worry that it will cost too much.
This leads me to my current decision. As a mentioned above, I found that the notebook in which I kept my collection of quotes was beginning to fall apart, so I’ve started transferring all the quotes in their exact original order into a new notebook. But, as I build out my PKM (Personal Knowledge Management. More on this in the future…) in Obsidian, I really want to put my quotes in there as well. I can cross-link them and index and tag them to tease out how the ideas and concepts interrelate. But I’m hesitant to do that because I feel it would be better not to lose that serendipitous re-discovery.
But, I suppose the beauty of a digital system is that if I find that I am not using the notebook to rediscover what I had loved and forgotten, I can always delete the digital notes and force myself back.