21st Century Commonplace Books

Has the commonplace book tradition come to an end? I know there are still a few people who keep a private collection of memorable passages from the books they read. At the same time, in recent years a considerable number of “commonplace books” have migrated from their handwritten or printed version to the Web. Perhaps they are the wave of the future, the dominant form that 21st Century commonplace books will take.

While these electronic analogues of their forerunners have probably not led to a revival of the commonplace tradition, they have surely broadened the audience for what was always a largely private activity. Several of these sites include a section in which the author gives a brief statement of its background. For example the author of The Sheila Variations writes:

Years ago - in high school - I started keeping a 'commonplace book' - although I had no idea at the time that there was a NAME for it. I just wanted to keep all the quotes I really liked in one place. I called it my quote book. Then much later, I realized that there's a long, long tradition of people keeping these "commonplace books" - especially "those guys" that I love so much in the 18th century. I've shared a ton of those quotes with you all here.

The Commonplace Book Website is authored by a librarian, J. Jacobs is distinctive in that it has an author and word index, as well as a search tool for specific topics and “random quotes.” To locate the passages that Jacobs has entered into his Commonplace Book, it is first necessary to type the name of a topic, word, or author in the box on the search page. An author search for Shakespeare resulted in three selections, one for Borges yielded eleven, and a topic search for “Literature” yielded over a dozen passages, some of considerable length. For example, the search for Hemingway produced the following passages that seemed especially timely a few years ago:

No one man nor group of men incapable of fighting or exempt from fighting should in any way be given the power, no matter how gradually it is given them, to put this country or any country into war.

The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency; the second is war. Both bring a temporary prosperity; both bring a permanent ruin. But both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.

A few electronic commonplace books are designed as collective sites, a Wiki in Internet parlance, where anyone can contribute to the list of passages. The Literary Works Commonplace Book is an unedited collection of quotations drawn from a list of book titles arranged alphabetically. For example, a click on the link for The American Scene by Henry James displays 17 passages including their page and chapter number, while the link for Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities cites 19 passages with their chapter number.

Another is The Commonplace Book for Advisors is a collection of quotations that educators might find instructive in guiding their students. It has been created by the voluntary submissions of unknown advisors from unknown places. Most importantly, it is organized around a set of fourteen topics including careers, decision making, overcoming adversity, success, and friendship.

Most of the remaining commonplace books on the Web consist of a cumulative set of unrelated quotations and sometimes drawings and photographs from literary or artistic sources on various topics that simply follow one another in chronological order.

Does the public visibility of these commonplace books increase their readership? In response to my question about the number of hits or visits their Websites get during an average week, one author said about 50-75 hits a week, another said 150 each week, while the author of the most widely visited said his gets about 762 during an average week. On a yearly basis, this ranges from about 2,600 to 39,624, an enormous degree of variability that surely depends on the subject matter of the Website, as well as its placement in Internet search engines.

Regardless, it is clear that readership on the Web is far greater than would be expected for a printed volume of the same material. Of course, these figures don’t tell us how much is read, or what a viewer derives from the experience, nor how many readers were stimulated to start their own commonplace books after viewing these electronic collections, all of which would be very interesting to know.


Welcome said...

I just learned about this today. What's interesting as I used to do this as a kid.

Richard Katzev said...

It's never too late to start again.