We get a modest number of scrapbooks every year, many of them empty. One feels a sense of kinship to these people who were going to get around to it one day and never did. I wonder how many of the empty scrapbooks I sell will stay empty.
Anyway, as many of you no doubt know, keeping scrapbooks became a major craft over the last twenty years, with guides to scrapbooking,online resources for scrapbooking, and even online scrapbooking, obviating the necessity for having to have something so untidy as an actual book in one’s home. (Saves on the glue and glitter budget, too.) There are even scrapbooking mystery novels, which doesn’t bother me nearly so much as the use of the noun “scrapbook” to create the word “scrapbooking”.
There was once a similar tradition in literature. Over the centuries, many a reader, struck by a sentence or a passage in a book, has copied it into a notebook. After a while, anyone is with the habit creates a little reference book unique to that particular reader: quotes that interested, amused or infuriated along the way. The technical term for this little book is “commonplace book”, from taking things from a variety of different books and putting them in a place common to them, or, to my amazement, simply “commonplacing”.
Commonplacing was practiced by hundreds of literate souls who carefully kept track of their favorite reading this way (very convenient if you wanted to refer to something but not search through—or borrow back—the books you found them in in the first place.) These books would be treasured, kept right at the reader’s elbow and then, at the reader’s death, thrown away immediately, because who else cared? The quotations were important mainly to that one person, and, worse, were in that person’s handwriting.
Still, some were preserved. John Milton commonplaced. Adlai Stevenson commonplaced, and handed the book on to Adlai Stevenson II, who added to it and passed it along to Adlai Stevenson III, who added to it and passed it along to Adlai Stevenson IV, who recently published excerpts from it. John Julius Norwich published a selection from his commonplace books every Christmas.
The Book Fair just had one come in: a massive leatherbound tome in which the owner noted down five years’ worth of notable things he had read during his course of study at Oxford between 1810 and 1815. He filled every page, writing sometimes in teeny handwriting to the every top and bottom and edge of some pages, AND he mentions that this was not his only volume. (He does not, unfortunately, mention his name.) Several years ago, we received a collection of annual commonplace books. Each year the compiler would pull together notable remarks, poems, or descriptions of her chosen subject for the year–bells, fairies, trees, chimneys—and publish the resulting book in an edition of just two copies: one for herself, and one for the most important person on her Christmas list.
Do they matter, these commonplace books? Well, on rare occasions, they may quote from some source otherwise unknown, making them the only record of what was in that missing manuscript. More often, they are valuable for a peek into a person’s mind. What was that young man reading between 1810 and 1815? He COULD have read Pride and Prejudice, but more likely he was reading tomes of Real Importance: philosophical works and sermons, or treatises on economics and political science. It’s interesting to know what an Oxfordian of that era considered important enough to copy longhand into a book of finite space. And that lady who did the commonplace book of quotes on bells: was she going to Shakespeare, or Eliot, or Forever Amber? It’s a tiny hint about what a segment of the population might have been found reading in those days.
I promise you I didn’t know this article would go there, but, if you think it over, that Kindle of yours is a commonplace book in its own way. Do you suppose there’s a record somewhere of what you bothered to download, and that future generations might be able to look back at that record and see what you bookmarked in “Spider-Man Vs. King Kong”? Will they care, come the next century, what we were reading and excerpting? Or will they regard our reading tastes as pure commonplace?
(Note: several people who own a Nook have objected to the attention paid to Kindle in place of their portable readers, and would like to see me mention the Nook more often. Okay. Nooknooknooknooknooknooknook. That should hold ‘em for a while.)