Most commonplace books, and there aren’t many of those, are private collections of notable passages that readers have collected over the years. Very few have been published and those that have are primarily the collections of well-known individuals—Thomas Jefferson, John Milton, W. H. Auden, Alex Guinness, etc. However, I suspect a relatively modest number have been published privately, probably less today than in previous centuries. Who can ever know these things?
From the earliest days of the commonplace book tradition, copying noteworthy passages by hand, usually into one or more notebooks, has been the preferred method of transcription. The introduction of the typewriter and computer and more recently the several methods of electronic recording have made inroads on this practice.
A considerable number of “commonplace books” and quotation lists are now appearing on the Web. I discuss a few here. While these electronic analogues of their printed forerunners have probably not changed the character of commonplace books, they have surely broadened the audience for what had become a largely private activity.
One of the most usual of those that I’ve read about lately is On Opening Mr. Keatley’s Commonplace Book by Brendan Bruce. I am completely in the dark about the identity, real or fictional, of Mr. Keatley or Brendan Bruce. But here it is, his commonplace book, formatted as a photographic portfolio on a Website, known as "blub" for some reason.
You can also sample a few of its pages and buy a paper or Kindle version from the ubiquitous Amazon.com. Regardless, on each page is a list of the passages that Mr. Keatley or Mr. Bruce deemed worthy of collecting from what is apparently a rather vast and wide ranging set of books.
No reason is given why the passages were selected, nor are they annotated or organized by theme, which I guess is true of most commonplace books. Nevertheless, here is a sampling from the 15 pages available on the Web. Might this kind of thing be the Christmas gift of 2012 for a fair number of commonplacers?
An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia. Thomas Babington Macaulay
Those who never retract their opinions love themselves more than they love truth. Joseph Joubert
Judge and be prepared to be judged. Ayn Rand
I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries. Joseph Addison
Those who air at great deeds must also suffer greatly. Plutarch
Destiny: n. A tyrant’s authority for crime and a fool’s excuse for failure. Anatole France
Bring your desires down to your present means. Increase them only when your increased means permit. Aristotle
I have never learned anything from any man who agreed with me. Dudley Field Malone
The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers. Dick the Butcher, King Henry VI Part II
Surprise happens so often that it’s surprising that we’re surprised by it. Paul Wolfowitz
Money is like the sixth sense without which you cannot make a complete use of the other five. W. Somerset Maugham
What I want is men who will support me when I am in the wrong. William, Lord Melbourne
Reports are not self-executive. Florence Nighingale.