Belly of the Whale: The Commonplace Book
A blogumn by Howard Leder
Recently in my reading, I came across a new, old idea: The Commonplace Book. The commonplace book–or commonplacing–was the practice of keeping a notebook or journal where you would jot down phrases & passages from things you read that you wanted to remember & use later on. It’s similar to the notes you might keep for a class, except this was a notebook kept over a whole lifetime, a summary of all the places the reading mind had rambled.
Susan Wise Bauer–in her book The Well-Educated Mind: A guide to the classical education you never had–describes them as “artificial memories,” saying:
When we sit in front of Plato or Shakespeare or Conrad, “simple reading” isn’t enough. We must learn to fix our minds, to organize our reading so that we are able to retain the skeleton of ideas that pass in front of our eyes….How is this done? By keeping a journal to organize your thoughts about your reading. What we write, we remember. What we summarize in our own words becomes our own.
According to Ms. Wise Bauer, the commonplace book is quite different from what we now think of as a journal or diary, which has become a place to reflect on your feelings & record the ephemera of day-to-day life. The commonplace book is externalized, looking outside the keeper, interlacing her mind with the books & thinkers encountered on a daily basis. On a surface level, many online commentators see blogging as a form of the commonplace book.
Famous examples of commonplace books were kept by Thomas Jefferson, the poet Milton, and the novelist EM Forster. You can browse through Jefferson’s Commonplace Books online at the Library of Congress. Leafing through them, it is a little awe-inspring to see long passages from Euripedes copied out longhand IN GREEK and think of the contrast between that man’s mind & the current uncurious, unread occupant of the White House….but that’s a subject for another day.
I’ve been keeping my own commonplace book recently, and doing it the old-fashioned way: longhand. At first I thought I would keep it on my computer. For my own writing, I use a nifty piece of software called MacJournal, which is a sort of freeform electronic blank book where I dump first drafts of everything. I tend to work in a very non-linear way; its open endedness makes it ideal to catch little pieces of writing that maybe aren’t ready for their own file on my hard drive.
My first inclination was to keep my commonplace book in MacJournal as well. But lately I’ve been consciously trying to break my reading habit away from the computer. Too often if I’m on the computer–or even just near it–I’m one eye on reading & one eye on everything else: surfing the web, checking email, downloading music, blogging, whatevering. My computer has become an extension of my own jabbering brain, and I’m using the commonplace book as another way to try & put the brakes on it. Commonplacing in an actual, physical notebook says –to me at least–this is more than just a database of things I want to remember. It highlights reading as the slow, rough hewn work of my own hand & mind.