26 October, 2009

Common Place books

Commonplace Books


Below you will find answers to some basic questions about commonplace books. As you read through the information, notice that the page is set up very much like a page in a commonplace book. Although I've entered a few comments of my own, this is essentially a collection of quotations about commonplacing.

A page from George Eliot's Commonplace Book

Courtesy of Yale's Beineke Rare Book Library of Digital Images


What is a "Commonplace"?

Here is one explanation:

"Commonplaces are small nuggets of language that carry a lot of weight for a particular group or in society at large, at a given time. They can be slogans, bumper stickers, catch-phrases, or simply pieces of language that we use all of the time, but which are more complicated than we realize, perhaps because they are so very common. Because they can be evoked in the same way as a slogan or an idea, objects such as 'the flag,' and documents such as 'The Constitution' (especially 'The First Amendment' and 'The Second Amendment') also function as commonplaces in rhetoric."--"Commonplaces: An Introduction," Professor John Hilgart, English Department, Rhodes College, and Professor Van E. Hillard, First-Year Writing Program, Duke University

In a sense, "commonplaces" are words used to identify or explain key ideas.


What is "Commonplacing" and what is a Commonplace Book?

Commonplacing is the act of selecting important phrases, lines, and/or passages from texts and writing them down; the commonplace book is the notebook in which a reader has collected quotations from works s/he has read. Commonplace books can also include comments and notes from the reader; they are frequently indexed so that the reader can classify important themes and locate quotations related to particular topics or authors.


"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.

Historically commonplacing has played an important role in education, and it has served as a vital tool of erudition.

"Boys ... had to keep notebooks or commonplace books in which to record, and then learn, idioms, quotations, or figures useful in composition or declamation. Not a little of that wide learning and impressive range of quotation adorning Elizabethan literature comes from these commonplace books." Schools in Tudor England, by Craig R. Thompson (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1958): p. 16, cf. 44.

"Students with literary tastes, in days when books were hard to come by, kept 'commonplace' or notebooks into which they copied out verses or prose extracts that particularly appealed to them." The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England, by Samuel Eliot Morison (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1965; reprint of the 2nd ed., 1956): p. 49.

--Norman Elliott Anderson, Commonplacing in the Spiritual Traditions


"Commonplacing--The commonplace book began blank. The reader used it to collect premises, arguments and other quotes from the various books read. The common place book was always at hand for the next addition or as a conversational prompt. It might well fill up with contradictory snipets." Book and e-book: The Future of the Book


Commonplace book (n.): an edited collection of striking passages noted in a single place for future reference.

There was a time when commonplace books were a popular way for civilized men and women to record striking passages they found in their reading. Who can forget the electrifying effect that some thoughts have on us when we encounter them for the first time? The commonplace book is a way of memorializing those striking passages so that one can return to them for renewed inspiration.--What is a Commonplace Book? at the Internet Book Center (Click on the link to see a very informal version of a modern online commonplace book.)


"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


"An early practitioner of reflective journaling was Thomas Jefferson. He would synopsize and capture the key points of his readings and add his own reflections, recording them in a journal which he called his 'commonplace book.' One of his biographers quoted Jefferson as saying 'I was in the habit of abridging and commonplacing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject' (Cunningham, 1987, p. 9). His tutor, James Maury, commended the practice as a means 'to reflect, and remark on, and digest what you read' (Wilson, 1989, p. 7)."-Herman W. Hughes, Dialogic Reflection: A New Face on an Old Pedagogy


What did commonplace books look like in the days when they were popular (from the middle ages through the nineteenth century)?

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