Commonplace Book

I turn to my commonplace book. I’d like to do something with it now. That means analyze it--examine its central themes and truths. I am in a quandary.

My commonplace book consists of two volumes, each about 500-600 pages, with an additional set of unbound volumes for the last two years. It is the history of the notable passages I’ve marked and then copied from the books and essays I’ve read every year since 1980. There is an electronic version on my Mac and a printed version that would sink a ship.

It is a gold mine. Every time I turn to it, open a page at random, I am struck by the wisdom of the assembled collection. Here and there, I come across a sentence, a paragraph that suggests something more general.

How can these nuggets remain locked away in the volumes of an unknown, idiosyncratic reader of the late 20th and early 21st century? How to mine this wealth?

At first I think a statistical analysis would be the easiest. I soon realize that isn’t going to capture the meanings of the passages, some obvious but most second or third order concepts. Nor of their beauty.

I go through some pages and start my own analysis. It takes forever, although it is worth it. Perhaps I can find someone to help me, someone who knows a little about me and my reading proclivities. A volunteer appears. She starts, develops an interesting taxonomy, but soon gives up. It is too much for her. I am not surprised.

It is too much for the software. Too much for the volunteer. Will it do me in, as well? I start.

I begin with the pages for 2010. At once I am halted by two passages that hit home:

From the poet William Carlos Williams:
Whether we’re young, or we’re all grown up and just starting out, or we’re getting old, or getting so old there’s not much time left, we’re looking for company, and we’re looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we’re not alone and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we’re walking or sitting or driving and thinking things over.

From Paul Auster’s Paris Review Interview:
Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you there are more years behind you than ahead of you—many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren’t there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he’s going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can’t know what the accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself.

It continues like this, slowly. Occasionally I come across a book I don’t recall. I know I read it; the copied passages are evidence. But I cannot recall a single thing about its story or characters. This happens from time to time, even though my memory is fully operational. I go to find the book on the shelf. Of course, it isn’t there. This happens too often.

I continue and come across the passages from an article I do recall reading. It suggests a game, one for which there is no app. I call the game Counterfactuals.

One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace? The answers, I think tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.

I start playing the game with the book I just finished, The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom. Immediately a counterfactual comes to mind.

But I am distracted by all of this. What to do with these gems remains?