Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘A Certain World

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

Zen and the art of browsing

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The Newberry Library Book Fair

Over the weekend, like an immovable object meeting an unstoppable force, two events in my life abruptly collided: 1.) I absolutely, unquestionably ran out of shelf space at home. 2.) The Newberry Library in Chicago held its annual book fair. For the uninitiated, the latter may not seem all that earthshaking, but as I’ve said here before, it’s the ultimate fulfillment of every library or church book sale I’ve ever attended, with six huge rooms packed with tables covered with beautiful books of every price, age, and description. As a confirmed book addict, it’s the closest thing to heaven on earth I’ve found, and I look forward to it every year like a kid waiting for Christmas. Yet after several years of collecting books in Chicago—and a few decades of obsessive book hoarding before that—I’ve reached a point where I can no longer unquestioningly grab every volume that catches my eye. I need to be selective. And although this may seem to go against the whole book fair experience, I found, instead, that it enriches it. Acquiring books is no longer the goal: the real attraction is that perfect hour or two of browsing itself.

First, an observation. When I was growing up, my attitude toward buying and accumulating books was very different. For reading material, I was effectively limited to the books I had at home, the stacks in my school and local library, and the inventory of my few neighborhood bookstores. This third category was a circle that slowly expanded, as I began to venture farther afield to bigger and more eclectic bookshops, but it was still far from a limitless selection. As a result, whenever I saw a book that I thought I might like to read one day, I’d pick it up, as long as it was reasonably priced. Nowadays, things have changed. I have access to the Oak Park and Chicago library systems, which have just about every book imaginable, and if I decide I want my own copy, thanks to the huge online inventories of Amazon, Better World Books, and elsewhere, I can usually get it within a week. This has led to an unexpected but inevitable shift in my thinking: I no longer need to own books that I can easily obtain elsewhere. The world is now one huge bookstore, and I’ve started to think of my own library less as a finite collection than as the conveniently available subset of every book on the planet.

The author's library

As a result, when I do buy books these days, they tend to be books I don’t think I’ll be able to easily find anywhere else, at least not at that particular price point. In practice, this means that I concentrate on the old, the musty, and the out of print. It leaves me with a personal library that grows more eccentric by the day, not because my tastes are all that far out of the mainstream, but because the books I tend to hoard are the ones that nobody else has heard of. I can always grab a copy of Lean In or The Signal and the Noise, but I may never find The Story Life of Napoleon—an enticing volume from 1914 that I unearthed at this year’s book fair—ever again, at least not for the two dollars I paid for it. If I come across a book while browsing, however interesting, that I think I might be able to find elsewhere without too much trouble, that’s actually a point against it. What I really want is either an amazing book that I didn’t know existed or one that I’ve wanted for a long time while holding out for the right price. In short, I’m looking for books that will make me say “Wow!” out loud.

And although those moments don’t come very often, when they do, they make everything else worth it. The upshot is that I spent five hours this weekend at the Newberry Library and emerged with a total of seven books, which works out to more than forty minutes of browsing for each purchase. (For the curious, the highlights were A Certain World by W.H. Auden and Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the latter of which I picked up for an unbelievable ten dollars.) That may seem like a lot of time, but really, the point isn’t the book itself—it’s the forty minutes. Once you commit to only picking up the rare, the exceptional, or the fabulous, you find that browsing turns into a kind of Zen state punctuated by rare but intense moments of enlightenment. You’re no longer there to acquire more books, except in a purely nominal way: you’re there because it’s good to be around books themselves, side by side with hundreds of other browsers who feel the same way. For a few hours, you’re in that perfect place. And if you do end up with a handful of treasures to take home, it’s less for the books themselves than for the memories of happiness they preserve.

Written by nevalalee

July 29, 2013 at 8:58 am

The sacred buddle of W.H. Auden

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W.H. Auden

Much of what I know about the writing of poetry, or, at least, the kind I am interested in writing, I discovered long before I took an interest in poetry itself.

Between the ages of six and twelve I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry—lead mining…

[I]n constructing my private world, I discovered that, though this was a game, that is to say, something I was free to do or not as I chose, not a necessity like eating or sleeping, no game can be played without rules. A secondary world must be as much a world of law as the primary. One may be free to decide what these laws shall be, but laws there must be…

As I was planning my Platonic Idea of a concentrating mill, I ran into difficulties. I had to choose between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes, called a buddle. One type I found more sacred or “beautiful,” but the other type was, as I knew from my reading, the more efficient. At this point I realized that it was my moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

W.H. Auden, A Certain World

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

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