From My 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

As I approach Marks In the Margin's 500th post, I return for a moment to its initial purpose--to make note of passages from my commonplace book. Each year I collect two sets of extracts from the books and essays I read. I call the first Passages. It is quite a collection of ideas, conjectures, ruminations, and simply well written sentences, some clever, others funny, but mostly statements that have set me to thinking

I also keep a much smaller, separate section that I call Briefs. These selections, perhaps quotations is a more accurate way to describe them, consist of much the same kind of material, but they stand alone and are not part of a larger set derived from a book or essay or organized in any particular order.

A fair number of the Briefs I collected last year dealt with the pleasures of reading, and the literary arts in general. Here are some examples:

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin

And then you’d take a break at the wonderful coffee bar in the Cortile. (Pretty much all the Vat [Vatican Library] wax ecstatic about the coffee bar.) There’s a social aspect. You are talking with friends, with colleagues, with people you’ve maybe just met, about important things, things of the mind. It’s almost like being in the Platonic Academy. Daniel Mendelshon New Yorker

…a weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in seventeenth-century England. From Information Anxiety by Richard Wurman

Follow your interest; follow the writers who energize you, not the ones who exert a sense of obligation on you. The books that do the one or the other will change, as time gone on. The landscape shifts. Don’t adhere to systems unless that feels good. Guy Davenport

It takes two hours to watch Molly Sweeney at the Irish Repertory Theater. But you’ll spend much more time thinking about it afterward. A deeply moving meditation of hope, change and despair, it’s a compelling piece of theater, one in which the ending applause is only the beginning of the plays effects. Ken Jaworowski Times

To sit alone in the lamplight with a book spread out before you, and hold intimate converse with men of unseen generations—such is a pleasure beyond compare. Yoshida Kenko

But speaking artistically—I like it when, at the end of a story, I can imagine the characters going on to do a number of things, all with an equal level of specificity. For example, at the end of Chekhov’s “Lady with Pet Dog,” I can imagine the couple leaving their respective spouses and staying together and living happily ever after. But I can also (with equal clarity) imagine them leaving their respective spouses—and then starting to fight bitterly. I can also imagine them staying with their respective spouses and loving each other forever, illicitly. Or staying with their spouses and slowly falling out of love with each other. So Chekhov’s accomplishment in that story is that those characters are so there, so real, that they live on beyond the end of the story, in three dimensions, and you feel their possibilities as human possibilities, i.e., unpredictable, with all the wild variations that are possible in an actual human life. So that’s the aspiration, anyway. George Saunders

…creative reading was at last inseparable for him from creative writing. But reading was just the means. The end—the purpose—was writing. Emerson

Behind any artist's urge to create is an egotistical impulse -- a desire to be remembered, to see one's works immortalized. Writers attempt to defy death by achieving eternal life on the page and in the imaginations of readers. Such hopes are ultimately illusory: obviously, a page or a book or a computer file may outlast their creators, but nothing has the stamina to outlast time. Yet few writers are either willing or courageous enough to confront the fact that literary immortality is essentially impossible. From a review of Paul Auster’s Invisible by Vincent Rossmeier