A commonplace book

May 14, 2008

The May issue of First Things has an interesting essay* by Alan Jacobs on the commonplace book. A commonplace book is a personal scrapbook of sorts, something one fills over time, yet it differs from a diary or a journal in that its content is not original, but gleaned from elsewhere.  It is not for recording one’s own thoughts, but the thoughts of others: sayings, poems, or observations that one wishes to remember.

Jacobs points out that the commonplace book emerged in the sixteenth century in the wake of printed books, in part as a forum into which to distill the overwhelming flood of words that broke upon the people of that time. Those flood waters have only risen in the intervening years, and a commonplace book remains an appealing means of appropriating the best that comes our way.

I have myself maintained something like a commonplace book for several years, although I haven’t called it by that name — not least because, in my case, it is not a book. I maintain a set of computer files, organized topically, into which I transcribe quotations that strike me as worthy of remembrance. I would imagine that anyone who spends time reading sees the appeal of such a jewel-hoard; it is good to have these gems at one’s fingertips rather than scattered through many volumes. To return to one of these topical compilations after several years of adding content can be edifying; if one is lucky, the assembled observations will illuminate the subject from many angles.

In his essay, Jacobs points out that while commonplace books have a long history, new technology has spawned a new variation on the theme: the blog. Most blogs contain original content, but it needn’t be so. One could use the blogging platform to offer quotations and observations, without commentary, for the edification, instruction, or provocation of whoever happens to read it. In fact, Jacobs himself does just that.

I’ve been musing on this idea. As some readers know, in just a few short weeks I will be married, and along with all the happy changes that I anticipate, I also foresee a sharp reduction in the time I can devote to this site. I love having it, but other things are more important. It occurs to me that it might be possible to carry on, at least to some extent, if I shift the weight off myself. Less blog, more commonplace book. I’m thinking about it.

* Not, alas, available online.

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One Response to “A commonplace book”

  1. KathyB Says:

    Well, now I can walk around with a vague look of superiority on my face because I have unwittingly been keeping such a book (in various volumes) over most of my life. Every time I try to keep a diary it usually degenerates (if that is the appropriate word) into a collection of choir song lyrics and quotes from Lord of the Rings.


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