Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The lost art of the commonplace book

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The author's commonplace book

Over the last few days, I’ve had occasion to mention W.H. Auden’s A Certain World, which I picked up on Friday at the Newberry Library Book Fair, but I don’t think I’ve fully explained the charms of this wonderful book. For those who haven’t heard of it, it’s Auden’s commonplace book—that is, an annotated personal anthology of quotations, excerpts from interesting works of fiction or nonfiction, and short notes and observations on subjects ranging from “Bands, Brass” to “Kilns” to “World, End of the.” In short, it’s like the best blog in the world in hardcover form, and it’s impossible to browse through it for more than a minute without having one’s eye caught by some new marvel. Here, for instance, is a quote from G.K. Chesterton:

A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him.

I’ve always been drawn to commonplace books, which provide both a valuable autobiographical portrait of the author and a mine of fascinating material—assuming, of course, that the compiler is someone with interesting tastes. In college, along with Auden’s collection, I browsed happily through the commonplace book of E.M. Forster and the marginalia of Samuel Coleridge, and one of my favorite bedside books is Hodgepodge by J. Bryan III. Bryan is an intriguing figure in his own right: he was a freelance author, journalist, and peripheral member of the Algonquin Round Table who published his own commonplace book in his eighties. It’s chattier and fluffier than Auden’s version, studded with amusing quotations and haphazardly verified facts (“The eggshells of all members of the hawk family are green inside”), and it’s probably the most charming book of its kind I know. I read it over again, in bits and pieces, every year or two, and if you’re the kind of person drawn to the oddments of a lifetime’s reading, you might want to pick up a used copy—it’s widely available online.

The author's commonplace book

Not surprisingly, I was inspired at an early age to put together a commonplace book of my own. My most ambitious effort, maintained throughout most of my freshman year in college, was an ordinary black sketchbook in which I copied down quotes from the books I was reading at the time, from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, along with short journal entries. In the end, like most books of its kind, it met the same fate as the one described by Virginia Woolf:

Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.

Every now and then, though, I’ll leaf through it, and I’m as much struck by the idealism and curiosity it expresses as for the quotations themselves. And although my Quotes of the Day here have served much of the same purpose, I can’t help feeling that such discoveries would live more happily in the pages of a physical journal.

Because in the end, a commonplace book is most valuable for the quality of mind it encourages. When you’re always on the lookout for interesting material, you read books with a collector’s eye, knowing that a passage that attracts your attention now may acquire additional meaning when set apart on its own or juxtaposed with something else. The best commonplace books generate a kind of collage effect, of the sort that we see in the works of Montaigne, Thomas Browne, or Robert Burton, in which the excerpts and commentary create a synergy that none of the individual pieces would possess. It’s no accident that these books are often the liveliest in print: they come very close to capturing how our minds really work, with chunks of memories and scraps of culture bound together with a thin tissue of personal reflection. For a writer or poet, it’s an essential tool, a way of preserving impressions and striking fragments that would otherwise be forgotten. It absorbs material from the world around you and makes it your own, in the most pleasurable way imaginable. Why not start one today?

Written by nevalalee

July 30, 2013 at 8:52 am

One Response

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  1. Very interesting, thank you Alec.

    Jet Eliot

    July 30, 2013 at 10:32 am

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