The Commonplace Book Tradition

As the New Year begins, the commonplace book tradition is alive and well, at least as well as any tradition can be that has lived as long and through as many centuries as it has.

Nancy Kelly writes a beautiful blog on the importance of commonplacing and some of its historical antecedents on her blog, Sage Parnassus.

A friend who introduced me to the commonplace book tradition and I am sure has read every book in the New York Public Library sends me a passage from Willard Randall’s Ethan Allen: His Life and Times. (I guess this is one she hadn’t got around to yet.)

“In my youth I was much disposed to contemplation…I committed to manuscript such sentiments or arguments, as appeared most consonant to reason, lest through the debility of memory my improvement should have been less gradual. This method of scribbling I practiced for many years, from which I experienced great advantages in the progression of learning and knowledge…of grammar and language, as well as the art of reasoning…”

In a 19th Century American Literature class at St. Mary’s College in California, Professor Barry Horwitz requires his students write in their online commonplace book during each class period. They are instructed that each entry should include at least three quotations they found significant from the class readings.

He tells the students to choose passages that offer a powerful statement or one that helps to understand the text or that makes a strong impression, say one you disagree with or one that rings true to your life. As the term progresses, each student’s commonplace book is posted on the class website. An example of those from one class of twenty-eight students is shown here. Have a look--each one is distinctive, annotated thoughtfully, with attractive themes.

Periodically, “The Berkeley Daily Planet” publishes Dorothy Bryant’s annotated diary of the passages she adds to her commonplace book. Here is her latest:

“He who despairs because of the news is a coward, but he who sees hope in the human condition is mad.” Albert Camus, 1943, occupied France. Bryant comments:

“Camus wrote that sentence in his journal as he began dangerous underground work in France against the occupying Nazis. Under these conditions, his terse statement sounds like one of those dark jokes one makes in order to ease tension when engaged in activities that may bring capture, torture, and death at any moment. Today, in more “ordinary” times, this statement seems merely an echo of our passing thoughts as we scan the daily news in print or on TV. Do we ever pat ourselves on the back for maintaining this heroic balancing act? We should. Happy Holidays.

The “American Scholar” continues its practice of including a commonplace book section at the end of each issue. It does so by collecting notable quotations on a single theme in a two-page spread without comment or annotation. Fear was the theme of the Winter 2012 issue.

“Fear is the basic condition…the job that we’re here to do is to learn how to live win a way that we’re not terrified all the time.” David Foster Wallace

“I begin to believe in only one civilizing influence—the discover one of these days of a destructive agent so terrible that War shall mean annihilation and men’s fears shall force them to keep the peace. Wilkie Collins.

Here are a couple on Fear from my commonplace book:

“Is it so that everything we do is done out of fear of loneliness? ….Why else do we hold on to all these broken marriages, false friendships, boring birthday parties? What would happen if we refused all that, put an end to the skulking blackmail and stood on our own?” Pascal Mercier

“…sometimes seeing one’s fears written down, seeing them articulated, can reduce their efficacy. I don’t mean that having them before you on a piece of paper causes them to evaporate, but it can lessen their potency.” Elliot Perlman