Collecting Ideas

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading…Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things. Robert Darnton

Currently my Commonplace Book consists of well over 300 pages of various extracts copied from the books and periodicals that I have read and then collected in a yearly Word document in what has become a rather huge spiral bound notebook.

In thinking back to the origins of my Commonplace Book, I am not at all sure why I began marking passages and then saving them in the first place. The passages must have stood out for one reason or another and I may have wanted to make a record of them in order to reread them sometime in the future.

I think I also had dreams of doing some writing. I know I admired a great many writers and often wondered how they were able to write so well. In my naïve way, I must have imagined that if I studied their works carefully and copied portions of them often enough, I might one day be able to write like they did.

I know there was something in the literature I was reading that was not only different but was also somehow more truthful, more discerning about what mattered in my life than what I was reading in psychology. I don’t recall collecting passages in the academic books and journals I was reading.

Yes, I took notes but those were for my lectures and classroom presentations and were never added to my Commonplace Book or preserved in special notebooks. I may have placed them in a file for the next time I taught the class but not because I found them memorable or otherwise worth saving because they were especially significant.

Lately, I have begun to think of my Commonplace Book as a form of collecting; in my case, collecting ideas as well as clever or provocative expressions that stand apart from ordinary discourse and are, for that reason, worth preserving. In some cases they serve as a standard against which to judge my own attempts to write with some degree of clarity.

Collecting ideas also has a number of distinct advantages compared to collecting most other objects—they cost next to nothing, they are easy to find, do not clutter up your closet, and don’t require periodic repair or maintenance.

A reader of Patrick Kurp’s blog, Anecdotal Evidence also suggests the same view. In a comment on a recent post, he asks, “Could we argue that this is what writing is? Collecting? I would.”

Kurp replies, “The art is in the arrangement. Guy Davenport says “…I am grateful for the unintentional education of having been taught how to find things (all that I have ever done, I think, with texts and pictures)…”

He concludes, “There’s no arguing that a blog is a mutated form of collecting, rooted in the charming custom of keeping a commonplace book and the near-universal human urge to find, collect and share.”