'Commonplace Books': The Tumblrs of an Earlier Era

People once copied quotations longhand of writers they hoped to emulate. Can copying and pasting inspire us just as well?

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So, about commonplace books. Commonplace books became widely used in the early modern period, largely because literate people were discombobulated by the flood of information that the printing press had unleashed on them. (One 17th-century writer wailed, "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.") Some of these were just scrapbooks, the predecessors of today's Everything Buckets, as Alex Payne has called them -- applications like Evernote or DEVONthink -- and would be places to store recipes, notes from sermons, remedies for common maladies ... you know, everything.

But the other kind of commonplace book was different. Its goal was to gather a collection of the wisest statements, usually of the ancients, for future meditation. And here the key thing was to write the words in your own hand -- by this means, by laboriously and carefully copying out the insights of people smarter than you, you could absorb and internalize their wisdom. Call it osmosis-by-handwriting. (Some people would copy out whole books by their favorite writers in the hopes of achieving some kind of voodoo transference of power.)

As Ann Blair points out in her terrific book Too Much to Know, lazy and unscrupulous readers cheated by simply cutting the words out of books and pasting them into a notebook, but this was doubly wrong: they ruined books without getting the benefits that could come only through writing the words themselves.

When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I'm succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I'm not writing anything out by hand; I'm not even typing the words, which is what I used to do when as a teenager I kept a sheaf of favorite quotations in a desk drawer. I'm just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don't have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it's even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that wold be required if I were to write it out by hand.

This is perhaps troubling; on the other hand, such copying is non-destructive -- I'm not leaving webpages with big blanks where the good stuff once was. And I'm making a pretty reliable and thoroughly public record of the things that are catching my attention day by day, which is quite a different exercise than writing out the words of the great geniuses of the past, but perhaps, over time, a more revelatory one.



Image: Yale University/Wikimedia Commons.

Presented by

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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