Commonplacing Considered


FOR THE PAST twenty years and more I’ve maintained a collection of quotations in black, made-in-Czechoslovakia, Pragotrade-branded volumes. This sort of collection is known as a “commonplace book,” and the keeping of one commonplacing. I take such care to mention the Pragotrade name because I purchased a number of these at Coles in the early 1980s and have been unable to find them for over two decades. Simple and unadorned, these dollar-something books could be had in your choice of blue, red, or black cover, the paper inside a serviceable unbleached pulp with the faint bluish lines you may recall from your grammar school “foolscap.” This was long before the market became flooded with overpriced and pretentious looking “journals,” designed to separate you from an inflated amount of your money with the implicit suggestion that nothing is too dear for your precious thoughts. I have always preferred, however, my cheap Pragotrade notebooks and the thoughts, only some cheap, of others.

The keeping of commonplace books goes back many centuries and seems to me to have been especially common in the late Medieval to late Renaissance periods. These were the days of the “Miscellany” and “Anatomy,” that group of weird and wonderful works which includes Erasmus’s “Adagia,” Francis Bacon’s “The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies,” Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy,” and which survives in the current-day Schott’s Original Miscellany. The works of James Joyce, in particular Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, seem to me also the products of someone inflicted with the compulsion of commonplacing.

I well understand Joyce’s evident fascination with random bits of information. Here is one of the entries in my commonplace book, from the Summer of 1991:

anti-idiotypic antibody specificities in direct tissue isoelectric focused anti-body profiles of resected colonic mucosa and colonoscopic biopses from patients with inflammatory bowel disease.

This was something I read while working at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, and it struck me as a noteworthy instance of linguistic flair. There are so many instances of these in our world that it can be a strain on the commonplacing compulsion. Examples of highly collectible bits of linguistic debris are: ingredients on food boxes, the hierarchy of angels, Scouse phrases, things written on walls, the various tunings of lutes, etymologies, the name of English towns and Ontario counties, types of knots, Mencken insults and Saul Bellow sentences, categories of heresy, and stupid things said on the CBC (e.g.: “Under Clinton, only the rich saw their taxes go up. But even the wealthy voters have money in their pockets.” – E.J. Dionne, 2 February 2000 at 6:50 pm; “[Sam Johnson] was a scrawny, sickly child, but he grew up to be a well-built man, but with a face so ugly that it literally shocked people.” – Bob Johnstone, This Day in History, 12 December 2001).

Mostly a commonplace book is kept for the writing down of “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed,” or even what is not so oft thought. To these ends I have collected many quotations ranging from Diogenes Laertius to Soren Kierkegaard to Woody Allen. Some favourites (the whole point of a commonplace book is to share) are:

There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it. (George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”)

Menippus in his Sale of Diogenes tells how, when he was captured and put up for sale, he was asked what he could do. He replied “Rule men.” And he told the crier to give notice in case anybody wanted to purchase a master for himself. (Diogenes Laertius, “The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers”)

The National Socialists found the core of the reptilian brain, and built an autobahn to get there. (Martin Amis, Afterword to “Time’s Arrow”)

The clouds that gather round the setting sun/Do take a sober colouring from an eye/That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality. (William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality”)

It is curious how people take for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level. (George Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”)

Sublimity can’t exist only as a special gift of a few, due to an accident of origin, like being born an albino. If it were, what interest could we have in it? (Saul Bellow, “The Adventures of Augie March”)

Political power [is] how much built-in resistance you have to being pushed around by shits. (Paul Fussell, “Class”)

Then there are the many passages too long to write down but which in any case I seem unable to forget. I don’t know why, but I remember the oddest things, and I suppose these constitute a sort of “commonplace book of the mind.” Examples of this are: the bizarre passage from Beckett’s “Molloy” – I am working from memory – in which the narrator must devise a scheme by which he is able to suck stones kept for this purpose in four pockets (“two of my trousers, two of my greatcoat”), each once and only once, “turn and turn about,” in sequence before proceeding to suck any a second time; Philip Gourevitch’s comparison of genocide to cheese sandwiches; Chaucer’s Prologue, for instance “croys of latoun ful of stones, And in a glas he hadde pigges bones,” from which I’ve had many occasions to draw when encountering contemporary examples of religious frauds; the bifurcation of Stephen Dedalus’s urine stream (in “Ithaca”) as he and Bloom piss: I recall this passage every time it happens to me; the passage in William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” which begins “In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep”; and much of Ecclesiastes, particularly the passage “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, etc.” (Isn’t that the truth.) It’s curious how much difficulty I have compiling a list of memorable passages, yet how effortlessly something will come to mind from some place who-knows-where when it is the time.

There is something deeply reassuring in knowing that one is well stocked in the apropos. We are a creature for taxonomy, and so the act of ordering our world through naming and description appears essential to our well-being. For this reason, and others, the keeping of a commonplace book is something I recommend to anyone not already doing so. It is possible to buy one of those prefabricated “dictionaries of quotations,” but the point is to record one’s encounters with the written word over time, and a proper commonplace book will invariably say something about its compiler. A commonplace book is as unique a creation as a novel or poem. Some of what you collect will be later esteemed as holding no value, a fact which in itself has value. You will record not only the thoughts of others, but what at another time was accorded well in thoughts of your own.

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