I recently finished reading the last of the “books about reading” that I had sitting on my coffee table. This one was a collection of essays by Robert Darnton, the author of the essay on Old Regime pornography that I blogged about recently. In this collection, titled The Case for Books, he writes about the role of the printed book and the research library in this ever-increasingly digital age. He ultimately finds a place for both.
Of the essays, however, the one that has lingered in my mind these past couple of days is about the early modern European practice of commonplacing. It’s an essay titled “The Mystery of Reading” that was expanded from an article he had written for the The New York Review of Books titled “Extraordinary Commonplaces.” He writes,
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it . . . They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
I had completely forgotten about commonplacing until Darnton sparked my memory. I first learned about commonplace books in an undergraduate literature course on Milton. Our professor, an elegant and intelligent woman, introduced us to Milton’s commonplace book, and at that moment I decided that I was going to keep one. That same afternoon I rushed to the university bookstore and picked up a beautiful leather-bound journal, and for the next 7 years or so I filled it with quotes from books, snippets of poetry, song lyrics, impressions from my own life. I carried it with me as I went to countless Grateful Dead shows, and on all my travels both at home and abroad. I copied passages from Shelley while I sat in my favorite little inn in Annecy, and from Proust (yes, that was when I read Swann’s Way) while sitting next to a little stream in cabin in North Carolina. It grew with my experiences and with every book I read. To an outsider it would have seemed like a disjointed and motley grouping of authors, musicians and poets (William Blake and Aldous Huxley, Tom Robbins and Voltaire, Steely Dan and Sartre), but to my eyes it was a clearer reflection of me then a simple journal would have been. It was may attempt to “make sense” of my world using the very tools that gave me my perspective, my books (and my music).
All the keepers of commonplace books . . . read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns. The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it…
I nearly tore my home apart looking for it last night. I still haven’t been able to find it. Although its pages (and inside covers, and margins) were filled over a decade ago, I never have even considered throwing it away, and the thought that it might be lost just breaks my heart. I think I may stop at another bookstore on my way home and get another leather-bound journal, and start keeping another commonplace book. We readers should bring back the lost art of commonplacing.