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.