Media and the Mind: Book Review

Heather Meek reviews Matthew Daniel Eddy’s Media and the Mind: Art, Science and Notebooks as Paper Machines, 1700-1830 (University of Chicago Press, 2022).

The book cover for Media and the Mind, featuring a pencil sketch of a sitting woman holding her artist's notebook
Media and the Mind book cover. Credit: Chicago UP.

Matthew Daniel Eddy’s new book offers a meticulously researched, beautifully illustrated, and spirited reconsideration of the Scottish Enlightenment through readings of hundreds of student notebooks, which are presented as adaptable “dynamic artifacts.” Expanding and “activat[ing]” the metaphor of John Locke’s tabula rasa (44) and the related notion that “imprinted or inscribed words” are “‘sensible marks,’ signs, that corresponded to ideas in the mind” (80), Eddy offers compelling discussions of the ways students processed, organized, and disseminated knowledge between the years 1700 and 1830. He also gives careful thought to his own management of information, as exemplified in the book’s structure, which employs another metaphor – that of the paper machine – and provides chapters on the principal notekeeping skills of writing, codexing, annotating, categorizing, drawing, mapping, systemizing, diagramming, and circulating. Shedding light, if only implicitly, on contemporary, computer-based learning practices, and offering alternative histories of medicine, science, technology, and developmental psychology, Eddy’s book offers a remarkable interdisciplinary scholarly contribution.

Crafting ‘Paper Machines’

In his prologue, Eddy announces that the book was inspired by “specific learning disabilities” that affect his reading and writing (xv) but allow him “to spot visual patterns and changes in meaning that remain unseen, or perhaps unnoticed, by others,” to “remember and rotate 3D structures in [his] mind,” and “to read texts as pictures of ordered space that can flip meaning” (xvi). He explains that, in high school, he retaught himself to read and, in university, came to see notekeeping as a kinesthetic skill that allowed him “to create accessible patterns of words on the page” and thus “remember information” (xvii). As he embarked on the 15 years of work that went into the creation of his book, his learning condition served as a “unique tool” through which he explored in new ways the history of notekeeping and the connections between “media” and the “adaptability of the mind” (xviii). The affecting, personal quality of the prologue is largely abandoned in the subsequent 400 or so pages, and the book as a whole does not participate explicitly in current conversations within the field of disability studies. Nonetheless, this initial framing lingers, as Eddy intermittently invites his readers to consider students who had, for instance, “developmental learning conditions with symptoms of distractibility and inattention, or who struggled to understand handwritten words or the layout of the page” (94). He explains that these students confronted “difficulties” in completing the conventional tasks assigned to them, such as “moving the tip of the pen across paper” that was oftentimes rough or uneven (94-95), “ranging a table by hand” (77), or overcoming “the visual confusion caused by the many competing lines running across the face of a map” (231). Accordingly, Eddy explores the myriad, unique learning methods adopted by his young subjects.

As the book moves through studies of notebooks and notetaking in the home, in schools, and finally in university classrooms, Eddy returns continually to the question of how students “transformed their notebooks into sophisticated paper machines” (43). He points to the value of “crafting” a written copy, examining how this impacted a learner’s mind in a way that today’s “copy and paste” function in word processors cannot (78), and evoking the “adaptability” of the notebook page as a material object very different from today’s “flat” digital page (88). The headings created by eighteenth-century students are described as “informatic capsules” that are part of a large array of “contemporary data management practices” (156), while sketchbooks function as “development media technologies” (190). Eddy discusses the “tools” involved in creating these paper machines, including “the steel pen, the ‘black lead’ (graphite) pencil, the ruler […], and the compass” (193), some of which students had to construct themselves. Drawing itself – as “a jointly manual and mental activity that helped learners internalize and spatially understand different kinds of knowledge” – is described as a “thinking” or a “developmental” tool (196). As an example of this phenomenon, Eddy demonstrates how the process of illustrating “dials, compasses, rules, and quadrants” allowed students to better understand these technical instruments (204). We learn that older students used the university syllabus as an organizational device that facilitated their transcription methods and allowed them to exploit the “relationship between media and the mind” (323). Eddy resists dogmatically idealizing these various Enlightenment practices, but his book implicitly invites the reader to pose the question, ‘What has since been lost?’

Documenting ‘Neglected Agents’ from the Margins

Among the book’s greatest strengths are its detailed portraits of “underresearched historical actors” and “neglected agents” (421). While major figures of the Scottish Enlightenment – including William Cullen, Joseph Black, and Dugald Stewart – are evoked, student notekeepers are the principal focus. The book as a whole, indeed, enacts a genuine de-hierarchization of the teacher-student relationship. Margaret Monro, whom Eddy describes as his “favourite” subject, takes a far more central place than her father, the famous anatomist and surgeon Alexander Monro Primus, who guided Margaret but whose instructions she refashioned in her creation, at the age of 12, of a beautiful-written 386-page codex (46). It is not the philosopher James Mill’s works but “a series of perspicuous essays” (162) contained within the notebooks of his pupil, 17-year old Williamina Belsches, that are of interest to Eddy. The chapters of the book often begin in ways that reflect this student-centered focus. Chapter 6 (titled “Drawing”) opens in a hamlet in the Highlands and describes the student James Fowler, who used ink, graphite, and chalk to draw a sundial that eventually taught him, as was the case for many children, to use the actual instrument, which in turn allowed him to set a clock (181). The beginning of Chapter 7 (“Mapping”) features the daughter of a naval officer, Mary Somerville, as she contemplates, on the quiet shores near her home in Fife, the journeys of the ships she gazes out upon (224). In the first paragraph of Chapter 8 (“Systematizing”), we are introduced to Glasgow University law student John Millar and only learn later that his professor is the illustrious philosopher and economist Adam Smith (269).

As many of the above examples suggest, Eddy returns repeatedly to the learning experiences of girls and young women, offering valuable insights that enlarge and sometimes overturn common assumptions of women’s education at the time. He looks at the sophisticated “sewn maps” made by girls who utilized the more conventional skills they had obtained through embroidery and ornamental needlework instruction (228). His study of young women’s notebooks leads him to the fascinating conclusion that some female students attended and received certificates for midwifery lectures offered by medical professors (278). We learn that Amelie Keir, daughter of Scottish inventor and industrialist James Keir, produced innovative headings in her notebooks, and that the schoolgirl Jemima Arrow has left us with “one of the largest sets of extant handdrawn geographical maps rendered by a Scottish student in a notebook at the time” (235). Through a wealth of such examples, Eddy convincingly argues that Enlightenment student notebooks served as vital and “powerful media technologies” and that their creators were active participants in “a knowledge community” (423) – one that has provided Eddy with the material to weave new and marvelous historical narratives.

Further Reading

Anderson, Robert, Mark Freeman, and Lindsay Freeman (eds). 2015. The Edinburgh History of Education in Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Barclay, Katie, and Deborah Simonton (eds). 2019. Women in Eighteenth-Century Scotland: Intimate, Intellectual and Public Lives. London: Routledge.

Bartine, David. 1989. Early English Reading Theory: Origins of the Current Debates.Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Blair, Ann. 2010. Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Dawson, Hannah. 2007. Locke, Language, and Early Modern Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, Caroline. 2019. The Art of Paper: From the Holy Land to the Americas. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Krajewski, Markus. 2011. Paper Machines: About Cards and Catalogues, 1548–1929 Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Tversky, Barbara. 2019. Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought. New York: Basic Books.

About the Author

Heather Meek is an Associate Professor of English in the Department of Literatures and Languages of the World at Université de Montréal. Her research explores the intersections of literary and medical cultures in the long eighteenth century, with a particular focus on the works of women and physician writers. Her monograph Reimagining Illness: Women Writers and Medicine in Eighteenth-Century Britain (McGill-Queen’s University Press) will appear in November 2023.

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