Friday, December 30, 2011

Not That Commonplace, Actually

My little commonplace book.  Isn't it pretty?

So have you ever heard of commonplace books?  Once upon a time, when we the people were a lot more literate and studious and didn't have electricity, we read and made notes on what we read.  Many people kept commonplace books, or notebooks with quotes or their impressions of what they read, often organized by topic, so that they could refer back to what impressed them the most rather than having to re-read a primary source, especially if it were borrowed from the library or a friend.  It was a way to keep the book with you, or at least the parts that made a difference to you.

I can't remember when I first heard about commonplacing.  Surely in my extensive primary education, especially in the history courses, it was mentioned as something that was done by the most erudite and learned. The first commonplace book I read for myself was dear E.M. Forster's, he of A Room With A View, Howard's End, A Passage to India, and more lovely Edwardian-ness.  I loved him so much as an author that I wanted to read more, and he left a commonplace book that was eventually published.  Sadly, his personal life was wracked with depression, and much of what he noted was to drive him further into isolation and despair.  But what fantastic personal insight into the man's inner world!

Historically and certainly for Forster, commonplacing was encouraged as part of an excellent education by one's better instructors as a way to self-educate for life.  Students kept commonplace books that were regularly checked and annotated by teachers; parents made notes in them to improve their children's minds and spirits, and people kept them for life as a sort of second intellectual diary.

Over the summer, our church's student minister gave a sermon about how we Unitarian Universalists can find comfort in hard times.  Since we draw from a number of sources, we don't have only one sacred book -- we have potentially any or all on which we can draw for inspiration, motivation, and comfort.  She held up a small four-by-six book in which she had been writing quotes for years, and she used this book when ministering to the sick and dying, and when she herself needed help.  I immediately recognized her book as a commonplace book.  Shortly after, I went and found myself one about the same size, and started putting a lifetime of excerpts and quotes into this one place for future reference.

I did a little research on commonplacing to inform my own practice, and should your interest also be piqued, here is a little of what I found, much of which links to other places of great interest:

Then I found the personal motherlode of commonplace books:  Thomas Jefferson kept a literary commonplace book, and it's been annotated and published.  I could not have been more thrilled about the existence of anything -- if I could go back in time to meet someone, see someone, be someone, it would be Thomas Jefferson.  I have a lot more to say about him, but suffice it to mention now that he's at the top of my admiration list.  Of course he kept a commonplace book, but how divine that it's been studied and published!
I have not wanted a book this much in a long time, and I love books.

And that my own copy of this treasure was under my Christmas tree this year makes it even more delightful. I am medulla-deep in it so far, enthralled with the intellectual landscape of Jefferson as a young man.

If you draw inspiration and intellectual stimulation from your reading as I do, you might consider keeping a little notebook and pen at your elbow to jot down those passages that truly move you.  It is powerful to leaf back through and see them, from many sources, all in one place.   It's a very old practice with a great deal of merit even in today's information age, and perhaps especially now, when information comes and goes so quickly.

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