One of my colleagues regularly keeps a commonplace book. Commonplace books have a long and interesting history, but they are basically just personal compilations of quotes the individual finds uplifting, convicting, interesting, or otherwise noteworthy. Not quite a diary, commonplace books nevertheless mark out the intellectual and spiritual journey of their writer. We can tell, for example, that George Eliot was rereading in 1868 both Milton’s Sampson Agonistes (“But he, though blind of sight,/Despis’d and thought extinguish’t quite,/ With inward eyes illuminated/ His fierie virtue rouz’d/ From under ashes into sudden flame”) and Shakespeare’s King Lear (“Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear!/ Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend/ To make this creature fruitful.”).
My own commonplace book is rather sparse because I keep forgetting to record things in it. I also like to record, uh, slightly less intellectual material than Eliot did. Here’s a snippet of overheard conversation “down the pub,” as the Brits say:
Woman 1: I love decorating for Halloween! I have a life-size coffin in my living room. I also have a life-size horse skeleton in my house—I kid* you not. My friend in California sent me a life-size horse skeleton.
Woman 2: Ooo. Do you get a lot of trick-or-treaters, then?
Woman 1: Oh, no. We don’t get any trick-or-treaters. Ever.
I love this. I love the cluelessness about why she might not have any sweet little 6yo Supermen and princesses knocking on her door. My book isn’t all jokes, though. There’s some poetry, plenty of Thomas Merton, selections from Jan Morris’s hauntingly beautiful Conundrum, snippets of conversations with friends (“Looking at people is a creative act.” Sam Granger), and, okay fine, heavy swaths of Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, and Bachelard—I am an academic, after all.
There’s nothing “commonplace” about the quotes we record in these books—there’s no point in recording that which is boring, clichéd, hackneyed, or meaningless. To record a quote in a commonplace book takes effort and time since it’s written out in longhand, presumably legibly. My colleague even uses a fountain pen, blue ink.
But I’ve been thinking about another meaning behind, or underneath, or hidden-in-plain sight within that word: the commonplace book as a common place. The human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan says that “Space and place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted. When we think about them, however, they may assume unexpected meanings and raise questions we have not thought to ask.” For Tuan, “Place is security, space is freedom: we are attached to the one and long for the other.”
My commonplace book places me in a common conversation—between texts, between people, between centuries. And there’s some security in that, I’m finding. At odd moments I’ll pick up my book and flip through it, remembering what I’ve read while being re-membered by those good words—ah, yes, I had forgotten that “We must accept the cup as offered, not altered.” Martin Sheen, “On Being” interview, December 2015.
So let me close by offering all of us a common place on which to stand, in which to find ourselves, and through which we may re-member ourselves during these last few weeks of this [insert your choice of adjective] election season:
Make peace with yourself, and heaven and earth will make peace with you. Isaac of Syria
*Not actually the word she used. I leave the rest to your imagination.
Sarina Gruver Moore teaches English literature and writing at Grove City College.