Awhile back, I started keeping a commonplace book. Commonplace book is an odd phrase, perhaps, because what you are supposed to record in such a book is, from one point of view, anything but commonplace. It’s likely that, as long as people have been able to write, some have recorded memorable ideas, wise sayings, or beautiful lines of poetry—words of rare value, distinctive enough that we dare not trust them only to our memories.
It was in the sixteenth century, especially in England, that the practice of such recording became widespread and recommended by the learned to all thoughtful and literate persons. This happened for two reasons. First, in that time paper became more widely available and considerably cheaper than it had been—developments prompted by the invention of the printing press but that benefited the private scribbler as well. And the printing press had another consequence: By making it so much faster and easier to disseminate texts of every kind—from Bibles (and commentaries thereon) to ghost stories, breathless accounts of notorious murders, and scurrilous poems on leading politicians—the world of print created a panic, the kind of panic distinctive to people who feel swamped by information.
Ann Blair is a historian at Harvard who has been exploring early-modern information overload, and her work—so far a handful of articles, though a book is on the way—wonderfully reveals the sheer anxiety of those readers. By the latter part of the seventeenth century, some people had come to believe that the constant onrushing freight of words was threatening to undermine European culture altogether: One Adrien Baillet wrote, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”
The commonplace book arose as a means of mastering or at least fighting off this “multitude of books.” For much of the history of reading and writing, books have been rare and expensive things, enormously time-consuming to produce. Their owners therefore took good care of them, pored over them repeatedly until the words had been all but memorized, and passed them on to their children. Individual books are frequently mentioned in early wills; and, when the great tinker-turned-writer John Bunyan married, the dowry he received from his new father-in-law consisted of two popular devotional books. But in the sixteenth century, the relatively wealthy and those who lived in large cities found themselves with access to more books than they could read, or at any rate read with care. Thus the need to select the best and wisest passages from those books—passages that were commonplace in an etymological sense, from locus communis, the “communal place,” the thing of general use and value—in short, the kind of writing that you expect will repay repeated consideration. A book full of such passages would be a treasure-house, something even worth passing on to your children.
It was probably inevitable that commonplace books would eventually blend with another early-modern invention, the journal. By 1720, when Jonathan Swift writes “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” and recommends the keeping of a commonplace book, he seems to have something very like a journal in mind: “A book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.” It’s interesting that Swift thinks that by writing down the thoughts and ideas of others you are “making them your own”; elsewhere in the letter he refers to such a book as a bank from which you can make withdrawals of wit and wisdom. As T. S. Eliot would later say, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Swift recommends theft.
My own commonplace book is of the earlier variety, in that it contains few words of my own: It is made up almost wholly of other people’s writings—but also their images, still and moving, and sounds. For my book exists online: It is a Web phenomenon only, employing no paper. Ah, you say, you’re referring to your blog! To which I reply, well, yes and no.
It is curious that the history of the weblog, insofar as it can be fully understood, mirrors that of the commonplace book. The term weblog seems to have been coined by a very strange man named Jorn Barger, and for him it is simply a log of interesting stories he discovers on the Web. It consists of links with brief descriptions, nothing more. But of course what most of us now think of when we use the word blog is a kind of online journal or diary; and that is indeed the path the weblog or blog has, generally speaking, followed. What was once a log of things other people said on the Web is now a log of my own life, which I make available to readers, and which may (but need not) contain links and references. So when we speak of blogs we don’t mean what Jorn Barger does; we mean—well, something like what Jonathan Swift recommended to his young poet friend: “a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading [or viewing or iPod-listening] or conversation.”
My commonplace book certainly isn’t a blog in the sense of a diary or journal, since it doesn’t feature my writing; it’s closer to what Jorn Barger does but not identical to that either. The three or four words that Barger appends to his links tell us little about what, exactly, interested him in the linked article, what he thinks especially important or worthwhile. By contrast, I present excerpts from what I’ve been reading that I think capture the spirit of it; or, if it’s a poem (I post a lot of poems), I give the whole thing. This is not primarily an act of courtesy to my readers, of whom I can’t possibly have many, but rather an act of intellectual discipline on my part, whereby I hope to capture for my later reading self the significance of what I’ve posted.
(I should pause here to dispel any solemnity: I post and link to plenty of comical things as well. And, while I wouldn’t post photos of me or my family, I do occasionally share images of my Shetland sheepdog puppy, Malcolm. He’s really cute.)
One could think in many different ways about how my commonplace book resembles or differs from those that emerged in the sixteenth century. Were I keeping my book on paper, with a pen, I would be making wise words “my own” by writing them out in my own script, my own “hand”: This physical act of mimicry was something the early-modern world took quite seriously, though we do not. But should we? Select-cut-paste is a very different act from copying laboriously by hand, but how might that difference manifest itself in my mind?
Likewise, how, and how much, does it matter that my commonplace book is fully public, accessible by any stranger? And that it is not something that I can pass on to my son, at least not in a way recognizable to earlier book owners? There’s no way for readers to comment on my book, which makes the environment a little less like a Hyde Park Corner harangue or an Iowa caucus; it brings me a little closer to those old anthologists, makes it more fully mine. (On the other hand, just this morning a reader took the trouble to find my email address and send me a message saying, “I love Malcolm!” And I didn’t mind that at all.)
Some of these questions will not have clear answers anytime soon. The blog, in any and all of its variants, is quite a recent phenomenon, and in the long run we may well develop distinct terms for each of those variants, rather than lumping them all in a single catchall category. Bernard Williams, that fine philosopher, used to say that “we suffer from a poverty of concepts,” and I think that that’s certainly true in our discussions of life online: “Is the Internet good or bad for us?” is a meaningless question because there is no one thing called “the Internet.” As our concepts for describing these cyberspatial interactions multiply and become more precise, we will be better equipped to understand how closely these forms of writing and reading resemble earlier ones.
In the meantime, I think I can hazard this claim: Keeping a commonplace book is easy, but using one? Not so much. I started my first one when I was a teenager, and day after day I wedged open books under a foot of my ancient Smith-Corona manual typewriter and banged out the day’s words of wisdom. I had somewhat different ideas then of what counted as wisdom. The mainstays of that era—Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan were perhaps the dominant figures—haven’t made any appearances in my online world. But even then I suspected something that I now know to be true: The task of adding new lines and sentences and paragraphs to one’s collection can become an ever tempting substitute for reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting what’s already there. And wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College and author of Original Sin: A Cultural History.