Serialized Commonplace Book

“All educationalists taught that reading was to be carried out pen in hand, ready to note in the margin metaphors, similes, exempla, sententiae, apophthegms, proverbs, or any other transportable units of literary composition. These were then to be copied out into one or more notebooks, divided either alphabetically or by topics, and to be reused in one’s own writing.” Brian Vickers

The Berkeley Daily Planet is a free local newspaper published in Berkeley, California. It began as a daily but now publishes twice a week on Tuesday and Friday.

It has a progressive, liberal outlook (this is Berkeley, after all) and, wonder of wonders, a regular “My Commonplace Book” column written by Dorothy Bryant.

Bryant’s column consists of an excerpt from a printed book, as well as comment explaining why it captured her interest. This is rare in virtually all other commonplace books. Here is her last entry and annotation dated October 4, 2011.

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

—W. S. Merwin, b. 1927

Three lines—one homely, familiar image—the sharp point of a needle piercing my being, dragging the thread of a loved one’s absence, stitching the “color” of this loss through me and into “everything I do.”

Exactly. Using abstract, even vague terms like “absence” and “separation,” Merwin opens us to the widest possible range of loss, great or small, brief or permanent. In sixteen words, clear to any reader, he says more than hundreds of pages can tell about the loneliness, loss, and grief—of brief or long-term physical or psychic distance—or of the ultimate separation: death.

Not that we learn something new, but that we are reminded of something that, at a deeper level, we already know.

And, somehow, we are profoundly, paradoxically, comforted. He has stitched our losses into a color, a texture added to us.

That’s why we need poets.

In a way Bryant’s column is rather like the serialized novels that used to be published in English newspapers during the Victorian era. Then it was the practice of popular novelists including Dickens, Conrad and George Eliot to publish their new works of fiction in installments, usually in very affordable newspapers.

There are a few commonplace books that appear on the Web, if not on a daily, at least a weekly basis. But few are accompanied by commentary as Bryant’s is in her weekly and sometimes bi-weekly column.

Only in Berkeley.