Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Let Me Introduce You To The "Commonplace Book"

Do you like great ideas, quotations, poems, jokes, and stories, but have a hard time remembering them? Have you tried to save them but given up because it took too much time or you didn’t know what to do with them once you wrote them down or typed them? What use were the scraps of paper, napkins, backs of envelops, or even small notebooks? Well, if you have such an interest you probably will not be surprised to learn that this has been a popular interest for a long time.  

Let me introduce you to the idea of a "Commonplace Book".  It was one of the first manifestations of collecting literary gems. Commonplace books may date back to Rome when Marcus Aurelius complied his Meditations.  Commonplace books as such seemed to come into their own during the Enlightenment.  They were important in early modern Europe and America.

My college edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says a commonplace book is “a personal journal in which quotable messages, literary excerpts, and comments are written.”  But the genre is a bit more broad and involved than that. Wickipedia tells us commonplace  books were a way to compile knowledge.  They were scrapbooks filled with every kind of item–poems, letters, quotations, recipes, tables, graphs, proverbs and epigrams–whatever one was interested in and in keeping.  Often authors wrote their own thoughts in these books.  Thus, one blogger calls them a “thought catalog.”  They were so popular and useful that John Locke developed a way to index commonplace books so their authors could find things readily.  It was a precursor to indexes in modern books.  Wickipedia says “Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. 

Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests and they have undergone many permutations over time.   When I first became interested in this I tracked down Thomas Jefferson’s commonplace book and read it. Though I wasn’t terribly impressed with what he collected, it was interesting to get a peak into his early interests and thought processes.  Just this week I found through Abebooks.com (an online consortium of used book dealers), Charles Stokes Carey, A Commonplace Book of Epigrams Analytically Arranged, published in 1872.  More recently, Ronald Reagan’s collection of quotations, stories, and jokes has become well known since his death.  Some of his collection was recently published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth.*  (You can see a 3 minute video showing how he actually used some of his material while he was President, here:  http://bcove.me/w8yz3mwh .) Spencer W. Kimball and Gordon B. Hinckley, both Presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints, were known for wide reading, clipping and filing things that would be useful in the many talks and sermons and administrative duties they had.  Thomas S. Monson did a similar thing.  A book of more than 900 of his favorite quotations was published in 1985 and is still available today.  It was really his commonplace book. In the “Preface” he wrote, 
Over the years I have enjoyed collecting quotations, poems, and stories that might be used to illustrate important principles of the gospel.  These are words of wisdom and inspiration that have influenced me with their simple but eloquent messages. [Thomas S. Monson, Favorite Quotations from the Collection of Thomas S. Monson, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985, vii.]
I started my own collection of quotations and other information in 1962 and now I have over 21,000 computer files in what I call DanFile.  It is my electronic version of a commonplace book.  In future blogs I will tell you more about this collection and provide a few tips about how to build and use one.

Let’s think together again, soon.

Note: If you would like more information about this interesting phenomenon do a Google search on the Internet and you will find a lot of things about commonplace books, including some history.  You will also find that commonplace books have been the subject of a number of other books and the commonplace books of many people have been published.

* Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Notes: Ronald Reagan’s Private Collection of Stories and Wisdom, New York: HarperCollins, 2011.

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