Commonplace Book

Swift in his Letter of Advice to a Young Poet explains why it is important to keep a commonplace book:

A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.

Less prosaically, I refer to the collected volume of passages that I have transcribed from the books and periodicals I have read as my Commonplace Book. Basically it is an unannotated, cumulative record of the ideas, questions, and well-written prose selections from my reading each year.

After analyzing my Commonplace Book a couple of years ago, I went back and organized the passages into several sets of the most frequently mentioned themes—Justice, Change, Communication, Age, Literature, etc.

This practice has been a feature of each issue of the American Scholar for many years where it is known as Commonplace Book. The two-page section consists of a collection extracts from various authors who have written about a particular topic, listed without commentary or analysis. For example, recent topics have included Loafing, Change, Failure, and Marriage. Grief is the topic of the current issue.

Sobbing seems to be peculiar to the human species….The grief-muscles are not very often brought into play; and as the action is often momentary, it easily escapes observation. Charles Darwin The Expression of the Emotions, 1872

Dear Fanny: It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. Abraham Lincoln condolence letter to the daughter of an old friend, 1862

The theme of Beauty, the subject of a blog I wrote late last year, was one of the most frequently noted topics of the passages I recorded in my Commonplace Book. The subject continues to preoccupy me. Why do we call something beautiful? Is there something common in the things we say are beautiful?

I have selected a few of my favorite passages on Beauty to post below. They include thoughts about the concept itself or especially beautiful passages from the books that I’ve read:

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran
We were thirsty for some form of beauty.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees were too dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Alan Lightman, Reunion
How pitiful his life suddenly seemed compared to hers. Her life is so simple, focused on one single thing. His mind is filled with uncertainty, hers seems to be certain. He tries to make beauty with words, she creates beauty with her body.

Janet Malcolm Travels with Chekhov New Yorker February 21 & 28 2000
The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it mush have sounded when the there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress toward perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings — the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.

Eliot Pearlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity
…the sunlight you carried with you. Eliot Pearlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity

…that sense of being alive that comes with being in the glow or aura of a woman’s beauty.

In Another Country Ernest Hemingway
In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan and dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff, and heavy and empty and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.