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This article is taken from PN Review 165, Volume 32 Number 1, September - October 2005.

'It seems I was reading something': John Ashbery's Flow Chart Don Share

John Ashbery's Flow Chart strikingly resembles a common-place book - quotations and impressions that have accumulated in a notebook, documenting aspects of daily life as they occur. This is, as Ashbery might well have realised, importantly bound up in the history of reading English texts: as Robert Darnton recently pointed out, common-place books once required

a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, stamped with your personality... By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology - a process of knowing - at work below the surface.1

This suggests ways in which Flow Chart seems to have been composed, as well as ways ...


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