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About Commonplace Books

Commonplacing is the practice of extracting quotations, whether prose or poetry, from one’s readings and transcribing them into a separate codex, either arranged randomly or by topic. The practice of commonplacing extend back to ancient Rome. The Roman philosopher Seneca urged readers to “copy the bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then… we could so blend those several flavors into a delicious compound that, even though it betrays it origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from what whence it came.”* The practice of keeping a commonplace book as a method for study and a tool for crafting rhetorical arguments was popularized during the Renaissance. In the 18th century, the practice become especially popular after John Locke published A New Method of a Common-Place-Book in 1706. The genre moved from the classroom to the domestic sphere, becoming largely the province of women readers. As St Clair argues in The Reading Nation, the commonplace book of the eighteenth century upheld the idea, influenced by the earlier Renaissance commonplace books for rhetoric arguments, that one collected epigrams from ones reading not only because they were “universally and perennially true,” but because they were useful, and could be applied to one’s real life.** According to St Clair, upper middle class women constituted the majority of commonplace-book-keepers by the second half of the century, weaving sketches, personal anecdotes, and, sometimes, even scraps of printed materials in with the poetic quotations. Yet the genre retained, to some extent, its utilitarian origins, upholding the ideology that the truths distilled in the epigrams could be seamlessly transferred out of the codex and into one’s daily life. Blurring generic boundaries with the diary and scrapbook, the commonplace book become more intimate and personalized – at times, St Clair notes, even locked for privacy. 

A selection of entries from Sarah's commonplace book on education and reading

In an 1805 essay Vicesimus Knox, the compiler of the popular anthology Elegant Extracts (1784), lamented the “shortness of time” to read the extent of literature in the age of print. “The art of printing has multiplied books to such a degree […] It becomes necessary, therefore, to read in the classical sense of the word, LEGERE, that is, to pick out, to select the most valuable and worthiest objects.”  This description implies an active type of reading: a reader does not necessarily need to read fully or linearly, but can instead use their judgment to control what is gleaned from a text. As Chartier argues in The Order of Books, this type of reading was made possible because of “the greatest change in the way texts were cast into print between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, 'the definite triumph of white over black’ – that is, the introduction of breathing space on to the page by the use of more paragraphs to break up an uninterrupted continuous text […] The new publishers suggested a new reading of the same texts or the same genres, a reading that fragmented the text into separate units.” *** Reading in pieces was also likely promoted by the popularity of anthologies. Price argues in "The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel" that anthologies “trained readers to pace themselves through an unmanageable bulk of print by sensing when to skip and where to linger, exemplifying a stop-and-start rhythm of reading." ****

As the popularity of commonplace books grew and quoting became hackneyed, critics began to question the value of these isolated excerpts. Swift mocked the “collector of bright Parts, and Flowers… what tho’ his Head be empty, provided his Common-place-Book be full” while Richardson similarly criticized men who, in an age of “Dictionary and Index-Learning,” “overcharge the Margins of the[ir] Books” with quotation rather than think for themselves.***** And perhaps, critics began to posit, the veneration of virtuous aphorisms actually obscured the true value of literature. In his 1765 preface to Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson criticized readers who read “by select quotations,” arguing that the author’s “real power is not shewn in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue.” ******

Browse additional digital editions of commonplace books at Harvard University's Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History.

 

* Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXXIV, “On Gathering Ideas.”

** St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004: 68.

*** Chartier, Roger. “Communities of Readers.” The Order of Books.” Trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

**** Price, Leah. The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 12.

***** A Tale of a Tub; A Critical Dissertation of the Book of Job.

****** Shakespeare, William. The Dramatick Works of William Shakesperare. London: Munroe & Francis, 1802: 29-30.