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Commonplaces

 

Recently, going through books we were donating to our local library, I noticed some with dogeared pages, often more than one, and tried to straighten them. I habitually mark memorable passages that way instead of underlining them or scribbling marginal notes—which makes them unreadable for later readers –or stopping to copy them by hand and lose the expository thread. I reread Walden often, each time the same copy. Many pages have bent-back corners, at top or bottom, depending on where the passage is on the page. One reward of multiple readings of Walden is reminding myself what struck me in those passages; another is discovering unblemished pages with overlooked ideas I now need to dogear. Every page will likely have bent corners by the time I stop rereading the book.

 

If you skim my blog entries, you'll notice how a passage in a book, essay, article, newspaper column, or interview initiates my further reflections. I often type such passages into my laptop, in case I later want to compose a response or instigate a vaguely related meditation of my own. Writers have always done this kind of thing, collecting quotes in commonplace books, almost since the beginning of writing. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept one and later drew his published Meditations from it. Rare book archives house manuscript or print copies by such philosophers, scientists, poets, and politicians as Erasmus, da Vinci, Bacon, Milton, Newton, Jefferson, Thoreau, Emerson, Irving, Auden, and Woolf. The tradition continues to this day: on Facebook Dinty W. Moore, the founding editor of Brevity, posts an author's quote about writing almost daily: a digital commonplace site.

 

Decluttering created space on our bookshelves and, while moving different volumes off their customary shelves and onto others, I noticed dogeared pages and wondered what was in that book I wanted to recall. What follows here is (sort of) the start of a commonplace file, what Wikipedia claims works "as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts [. . .] found in other texts." Here are a few from books on my shelves:

 

"Even the oddest, most particular book was written with that kind of crazy courage—the writer's belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect those books and manuscripts and preserve them." (Susan Orlean, The Library Book, 309-310)

 

"The love of a comrade and the attention of the reader: these desires (which have no clear boundary between them) reach effortlessly across years and cities, then centuries and continents. No poet has spoken to the audiences of the future with such certainty that they are there, listening." (Mark Doty, What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, 252)

 

"The essay poured out with such ease or rather tumbled out seemingly of its own accord. When this happens it means that the thoughts have long been gestating and writing is only a birth of what was already taking form out of sight. So much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control, and when the work shows up like that your job is to get out of its way." (Rebecca Solnit, Recollections of My Nonexistence, 216)

 

"Throughout my life it's through attention that I've tried to tie myself to various places, through mindful recognition of my body's presence in the world of forms to memorize my own brief passage in this world. Now I try to imagine the pull of some other bond: mindless, selfless, a recombinant plein air melting in relentless solar wind. A scatter of atoms, unspecific and undifferentiated, into what happens next." (Elizabeth Dodd, Horizon's Lens: My Time on the Turning World, 123)

 

"Some feelings resist expression for years or decades. Some never submit. The sight of the peaks has long struck me as a kind of prayer I am supposed to know but cannot find the words to. They are the chorus of a hymn I want to sing but cannot finish: the mountains rise like, the mountains rise like . . . but what is it they rise like, to the sky?" (William deBuys, The Walk, 96)

 

Any one of these passages might start me pondering what it means to me, why I dogeared that page, what it meant to the author who composed it, how much we would agree about what it expresses. It might even foster a blog entry. Of course, any reader of this entry might wonder why these, among all my dogeared passages, are the ones I'm sharing as commonplace examples. You, reader, might blog about what you think is going on with me or blog about your own reaction to any or all of them or start checking dogeared pages of your own.

 

That's the way commonplace books work, fertilizing the mind by recording ideas in abundance and discovering what emerges over time. It's worked that way for writers of every kind throughout the history of writing.

 

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