Private Commonplace Books

Most commonplace books, and there aren’t many of those, are private collections of notable passages. Very few have been published and those 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?

George Herrick was one of the respondents to my commonplace book survey. You’ve never heard of him? Not many have. In 1997 he published Winter Rules: A Commonplace Book, where he discusses for a couple of pages the commonplace book tradition and then presents selections from his very own. He organized the passages around a set of topics reflecting his interests—Habits of Painters, Hymns, Picnics, Games, etc. There are only a few passages for each such topic, sometimes one, never more than three or four. He sent me a copy of the book, along with a privately printed short (10 pages) collection of passages titled Sun Burn.

It is Sun Burn that interests me most, not because of the passages, passages that are as odd as those in Winter Rules, but rather because of his reasons for printing it (copying would be more accurate). In the Preface he writes that every now and then it is time to arrange his passages for his friends. What a nice idea, I thought. In an e-mail he told me that he prints only a few copies and distributes them to his friends and family as Christmas presents. I was greatly intrigued by this practice. Again I thought what an interesting idea; maybe I should do something like that. And then I thought that my friends and family would probably have about as much interest in my collection as those I found in Herrick’s, especially since they were hoping I’d give them an iPhone.


Night Train to Lisbon

Night Train to Lisbon was one of the finest novels I have read this year and maybe one of the all time greats in my short and happy reading history. I started reading the book again a while ago, something I rarely do and the only reason I did was because I simply couldn't find anything else worth reading following Pascal Mercier's thought-provoking novel. It inspired me, if you will, to write an short essay about its dialogistic style and led me to make note of well over 100 passages from its richly endowed pages.

In my thinking about commonplace books and the passage-collecting habits of other readers, I wondered whether or not those who read the same book would copy similar passages. A friend recently sent me the passages she collected from Night Train to Lisbon which, although the sample is miniscule, gave me a chance to do that.

My friend only recorded eight passages which is significantly different than the number I recorded. Even with a small sample the likelihood of this outcome occurring by chance must be about .000000000001. Further, in comparing her selections with mine, I note that there was absolutely no overlap. Namely, I did not record a single passage that she did, in spite of the fact that I recorded over 100. Given that number, one might have expected that we would have at least one in common. But no, we didn't.

What is one to make of this? I confess it pleases me. Readers read so differently. The same text can mean something different for each reader. One person's literary truth is another person's banal cliché. I think of books, a good book, at least, as a cornucopia of meanings that vary widely between readers. Is it any wonder the reading experience is such a cherished experience?

This issue brings to the fore the reasons why individuals mark passages. Why do we mark and then record a passage? Does it serve any particular function or functions? Let us imagine a clever witty, passage. One reader marks it, the other doesn't, yet both regard the passage as clever and witty. Why does one reader mark it, while the other doesn't?

Of course the same question could be asked for any passage, from the philosophical to the mundane. Questions like these intrigue me. They are the sort of questions Prado might have asked, for his way of thinking was one of questioning. In a nutshell, that's why Night Train to Lisbon meant so much to me. Plus, the questions were largely unanswerable.