Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Keeping a Commonplace: A Silva Rerum ("a forest of things")

"Commonplacing is the practice of entering literary excerpts and personal comments into a private journal, that is, into a commonplace book or, to use a 17th century synonym, a silva rerum ("a forest of things"). Typically the excerpts were regarded as exceptionally insightful or beautiful or as applicable to a variety of situations, and so as such they are often especially quotable. . . . The practice of commonplacing can be traced back in the European tradition to the 5th century B.C.E. and the Sophist, Protagoras." --Norman Elliott Anderson, Commonplacing in the Spiritual Traditions

     A man came into my store the other day. A very interesting fellow. He looked like a weathered rock star from the 70's. He was smiley and his face crinkled. He bought a lined journal refill for a Scully (a really nice line of leather products that we sell). He had a battered leather cover that the refill would slide into. I commented that it looked loved.
     He proceeded to take it out and flip through the pages. They were marked all through, with lists, numbers, small sketches, words in margins. He said it was a commonplace.
     "I'm sorry, I don't know what that is," I said.
     He proceeded to explain.
     Apparently, a "commonplace" is similar to a journal, but is not precisely a journal. It's a place where you write down things that you come across in your everyday life. But you don't write them down as you would in a journal. Instead, you just write them down: perhaps that little tidbit you heard on NPR that you want to remember, or want to go back to and think about. Perhaps a list of plants you want to plant in your garden. Perhaps a quote from a book you are reading. You number the pages and create an index at the beginning. Then when you are done, you go back to the index and write what information is mentioned on what page. It's an ingenious way to keep track of the day to day, and to find where you wrote that little snippet down. It's extraordinary.
     Having not forgotten this exchange with this gentleman (he shook my hand and said his name was James, who I now refer to in my mind as Commonplace James), I looked it up online today, to see what else I could discover about commonplaces. And boy is there a lot!
     It looks like the Greeks first developed it, and it was quite prominent in 13th century Italy. In fact, it was quite...ahem...commonplace...for Italian writers and learned people to keep them. It fell away for awhile, only to rise up again in Early Modern England. Francis Bacon, John Milton and John Locke all kept commonplaces. So did Thomas Jefferson. They are referred to throughout a variety of literature as well. For example, this excerpt of Virginia Woolf's from the mid-20th century:

"[L]et us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. 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." Virginia Woolf, “Hours in a Library,” Granite and Rainbow: Essays by Virginia Woolf (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958), p. 25.

Or this one:

Bronson Alcott, 1877: “The habit of journalizing becomes a life-long lesson in the art of composition, an informal schooling for authorship. And were the process of preparing their works for publication faithfully detailed by distinguished writers, it would appear how large were their indebtedness to their diary and commonplaces. How carefully should we peruse Shakespeare’s notes used in compiling his plays—what was his, what another’s—showing how these were fashioned into the shapely whole we read, how Milton composed, Montaigne, Goethe: by what happy strokes of thought, flashes of wit, apt figures, fit quotations snatched from vast fields of learning, their rich pages were wrought forth! This were to give the keys of great authorship!” Amos Bronson Alcott, Table-Talk of A. Bronson Alcott (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877), p. 12.

     This is a very exciting discovery for me, as I am an incessant journaler. My mom bought me my first diary when I was ten years old. It was pink with an ice cream cone on the front, and it had a lock. I loved that journal, and continued with the practice since then. I have books and books full of observations and day to day life. I am currently a mere 12 pages away from being finished with my current journal, and am aching to move on to my next, a lovely leather-bound handmade journal with a Celtic Tree of Life tooled onto the cover. The pages are handmade as well, and feel like cloth. Vern got it for me for my birthday.
     Despite me being a journal keeper, the idea of a commonplace is a new and welcome one. My journals sometimes contain a list, or a quote from a book. But most often they are ramblings on my day or on a specific event. A commonplace, however, gives me a common place to collect all of my other ideas, lists, notions, etc. Things that I want to think about, but only have time to jot down at the moment. Generally speaking, I write these things on scraps of paper that lay around the house on desks or in a drawer. But this is the opportunity to compile a book specifically geared toward these small exchanges, or quotes, or overheards. It is really quite exciting. It is the creation, not of a book or any chronological account of happenings, but of random, seemingly unrelated and perhaps contradictory ideas. Here is what the New York Review of Books says:

"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 . . .The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. 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. . . . The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite." -- Robert Darnton, "Extraordinary Commonplaces," The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

     Another exciting feature of the commonplace is what it ends up looking like. Looking at Commonplace James' commonplace, it was overflowing with little things and big things. Sections overlapped. Some things were written sideways. Others were categorized and looked scientific. It is a way to index and go back to all of the little things we see, hear and read everyday and to keep track of them. Each person's interests dictate what their commonplace will be about. And in the end, the commonplace you keep is as unique as you are. Every one is different.


  1. So that is what I have in my purse. I'm going to be more diligent in using it correctly as a commonplace. Very interesting piece.

  2. thanks for the edification! whose commonplace is pictured? (i didn't see a caption...) it's neat to note that a commonplace seems much like a prototypical database, what with its index and all...

  3. The commonplace pictured is anonymous, as far as I can tell. It can be found by going to the Library of Congress website, searching for commonplace, and clicking on the commonplaces that show up. Some of Thomas Jefferson's are in there, but I liked the look of this one. :)