My father’s collection of books included numerous anthologies and published commonplace books, notably Maurice Baring’s Have You Anything to Declare? and J.T. Hackett’s My Commonplace Book discussed on this site under “Aspirational Reading.”
As far as I know he kept no commonplace book of his own. Rather his fondness for such texts was, I think, a way of placing himself among the kind of readers he admired—university educated men, easily familiar with classical literature as well as the “greats” of English literature.
As an undergraduate I kept one of those notebooks which Virginia Woolf assumes “we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning” in which “passages from the classics” are copied out in “strikingly legible hand-writing.” Looking at this relic of “youthful vanity” now, I’m struck by the way it both signals more mature literary tastes – Sir Thomas Browne, George Eliot and Henry James, as well as an adolescent yearning towards what then seemed profundities and which now seem banal. Most striking of all is the chaotic mix of handwriting styles—on one page slanting, and on another upright half-tending towards an imitation-italic.
Embarrassing as it now seems, with all its inconsistencies and pretentiousness, this notebook was evidently a way-station in progress towards a more developed reading self. In his essay on the history of commonplace books Robert Darnton suggests that the practice of keeping such books played an important part in Early Modern readers’ development of a “sharper sense of themselves as autonomous individuals.” The centrality of commonplace books in earlier reading practice is marked by the development of prescriptive rules for organizing their contents. A reaction to the “multitude of books” released by the print revolution, scholars like Erasmus began to devise systems for organizing both their own observations and the florilegia (“flowers of reading”) gathered from their studies. Such “active reading” evidently became sufficiently widespread to prompt John Locke to propose, in 1706, a “new method” for organizing the contents of commonplace books.
Most of the writers who have kept such books—E.M.Forster or W.H. Auden for example have employed organizational structures nothing like Locke’s highly rational system. The most famous of such twentieth century collections, Walter Benjamin’s vast Arcades Project, seems to shun organization altogether.
The labyrinthine vastness of Benjamin’s Project seems to prefigure the digital age reincarnation of Erasmus’s attempt to rein in the chaos of print—the book blog which garners florilegia on-line.
“We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson” argues Steven Berlin Johnson in a Hearst lecture at Columbia lecture extolling the potential of social media and the vast range of digital tools for replicating the old-fashioned commonplace book compiler’s task. But as Oliver Burkeman points out, the labour of physical transcription–the transmutation of printed text into one’s own handwriting–creates a personal “vegetable patch” quite unlike the “everything bucket” of materials scooped up by computerized cutting and pasting.