August 2010 | L. D. Mitchell

Collecting Commonplace Books

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.... 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....

A considerable scholar in his own right, Robert Darnton, source of the above quotation, probably would appreciate his own words being commonplaced.  There was a time, after all, when capturing and commenting upon particularly apt quotations was the very essence of a well-rounded education.

Known as early as the 14th century, commonplace books came into their own in the 1600s, and they continued as a popular pedagogical device well into the 20th century. Over the centuries, the focus of such books shifted from capturing and organizing "exemplary" thoughts and ideas to something more akin to a hodgepodge: a jumble of quotations, recipes, medical remedies, and whatever else struck one's fancy as worthy of capture and commentary. 

Although a number of commonplace books have found their way into print (a typical example is depicted above), many more survive only as manuscripts in institutional collections.  We are fortunate that some of these institutional collections have been digitized, so we all can appreciate them.  Harvard's Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History contains some particularly instructive examples of the commonplace book.  (For a good recent overview of the practice, see David Allan's Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England.)

Several scholars have suggested that blogs are direct digital descendants of the printed commonplace book.  One could make the same argument for FaceBook, Twitter and like services.  In fact, it's not much of a stretch to imagine the LOC's archive of every tweet ever made as the world's largest commonplace book....