On Notebooks and Technical Autobiography

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1. On Notebooks and Technical Autobiography

Much (though by no means all) of the material of Circuitous Root®™ consists of what I'm calling "Notebooks." These are not literal "put in your pocket" notebooks, nor are they day-by-day laboratory notebooks: they are composed and edited documents. Neither, however, are they any of a number of other types of writing that they might otherwise resemble. So in writing these various "Notebooks," I kept (and still keep) returning to a problem of defining what it is they were (and are).

First and most importantly (from a reader's point of view, at least) they are clearly to me not teaching texts, instruction manuals, or "how to" guides. Really. While many of them contain sufficient information to allow people to replicate some of my activities, this is not my intention. If it were, these Notebooks would be written very differently: they'd be shorter, for one thing, and more directed, and less rambling, and perhaps would actually have goals.

They are instead, I now think, examples of a form of writing which I'll call "technical autobiography." This may be a useful notion, because while I do not assert any particular value for my own Notebooks, I feel that this genre of "technical autobiography," of which these are but poor examples, in better hands might be an important genre.

That these Notebooks are autobiographical is (or should be) obvious. I'm not writing a "do this, do that" type of text (which is what I might do if they were teaching texts), but rather "I did this, I did that." They are literally just a record of what I did, for myself. Why should such autobiographical writing be worth reading? Why in general should any autobiography be worth reading, vanity aside? Biography is a difficult enough genre; autobiography must be the most vexed of all genres.

There seem to me to be two big reasons to read autobiographies, neither of which have much to do with learning about the actual writer. One reason is to learn something about the world at large - the world of human actions - perhaps as a guide to one's own actions. For example, were I a military general, I might find it useful to read the autobiographies of other generals.

Sometimes it might seem as if the reason is simply to learn about someone fascinating, but on reflection I find that this isn't the case. Everyone is interesting insofar as they are a person. In the case of people that you might read about, either they are fascinating (if indeed they are) because of their role in larger events (and thus this is an example of the first reason; see above) or they are fascinating because of the subjects with which they engage (for which see below).

The other reason is to learn something about the things and processes in and of the world. Learning about the things of the world itself is both a valuable activity in itself and an activity which is different from learning about the world of human affairs. That this is so will be intuitive to the technical person - the crafter, engineer, or scientist. It may well be incomprehensible to the political person blinded by the hubris of being human.

Autobiographies catering to the first type of reading are the autobiographies of "important" people - the politicians, generals, tycoons, and the like who control the world of human affairs, or the movie stars, pop stars, and the like who are used to guide the flow of money through the world of human affairs.

Autobiographies catering to the second type of reading are therefore, by contradistinction, the autobiographies of "unimportant" people. I do not find this discreditable! Indeed, set beside your average vicious general or vain pop star, the "unimportance" of the average engineer, crafter, or scientist should be a badge of honor.

What is the mark of technical autobiography? It is simply that it engages you enough that it causes you to want further to understand something about the material and technical contents of this world. If in addition you can actually learn something technical from it, so much the better. Oliver Sacks' memoir of his childhood with chemistry, Uncle Tungsten, is a classic example; so is Annie Dillard's Pilgim at Tinker Creek.

In general, there is more technical autobiography in the sciences than in the artisanal crafts, and more in the crafts than in engineering. It is a rare genre, in terms of established works. There must be millions of disconnected snippets of it, though, lurking in the more modest corners of the Internet. Whether any of it of any quality really lurks here I'm not the best to judge.

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