Excellent Samuel Johnson quote

I am reading an excellent commonplace book – of Hester Lynch Piozzi (she named the book ‘Minced meat for pyes’).  This commonplace is reminding me why I love these books as an insight into an author’s mind.

Minced meat for Pyes – Hester Lynch Piozzi

It will take some time for me to create a post about this book, but in the meantime I had to include this great quote, written in Mrs Piozzi’s casually neat handwriting.

“His delivery, tho’ unconstrained is not negligent & tho’ forcible is not turbulent, disdaining anxious nicety of emphasis, & laboured artifice of action, it captivated hearers by its native dignity; it roused the sluggish, it could fix the volatile, detaining the mind most happily to the subject without directing it to the speaker.”


According to this source the quote came from Samuel Johnson as part of an obituary on May 2 1769 issue of the London Chronicle in reference to the Reverend Mr Zachariah Mudge.  An interesting part of the detective work in commonplaces is finding out whether the inspiring text you’re reading is from the author him/herself or from another source!

Although Mrs Piozzi gives the honour of this compliment in her commonplace to a George Henry Glasse rather than Reverend Mudge, Mr Glasse himself came to a fairly unfortunate end according to Wikipedia.  In a circular fashion it is ironic that the story of Glasse’s death is referenced within the Wikipedia article from another piece of writing by Mrs Piozzi.


Supernatural – John Winchester’s journal

Yes, this is on the fence.  This is known in the series as a “journal” but by all accounts it’s a commonplace book.

For those of you who aren’t fans of the series (where have you been?), the protagonists, Sam and Dean Winchester, travel the US fighting all sorts of supernatural monsters.  Much of the information they find about these monsters is from their late father’s journal, a ring-bound folio full of clippings, photos, drawings and descriptions.


I have created a page on this blog about commonplaces in fiction and this journal may seem to violate the “if I shake it does anything fall out?” rule.  But you can see this folio was meant to be used ‘on the road’, with all the random clippings carefully bound or glued in place.

Also, although much of it is personal diary entry, this seems to have been common of historical commonplaces.  There is not a clear distinction between diary and commonplace book.  The important fact of this particular journal is that it’s a tool to be carried, referenced and used by Sam and Dean, not a private diary to be stuffed under a mattress.

Check out the Supernatural wiki page for an overview of this journal: http://supernatural.wikia.com/wiki/John_Winchester’s_Journal

Or, for an intensive (and slightly disturbing) journey, check out this site which outlines one fan’s creation of John Winchester’s journal as faithfully as shaky stills from the show will allow http://creatingjohnwinchestersjournal.tumblr.com/



Lets Look at Locke

To tell the truth, anything I can add about John Locke right here is something you can check out yourself from a quick Google.  I’ll skip the intro and rather introduce you to the indexing system he invented popularised.

If you want to look at the source, check out the following link to a book containing “A new method of making common-place-books” by John Locke.  For a text written in 1706 it is a surprisingly easy read.  http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/13925922

In a nutshell, Locke creates a contents/index grid at the beginning of a commonplace book.

New Picture (9)

The grid contains the letters of the alphabet (excluding K, Y and W, which – in Locke’s cryptic opinion, “are supplied by C, I, U, letters of a like power”.  Against each letter he includes the five vowels; a, e, i, o, u (except for Q, which only gets a ‘u’).  Below:


The rules are fairly straightforward:

  • Put a memorable heading at the top of each page and reference in the index by the first letter and the first vowel of the heading title.  So if you had a page with info about Commonplace books on page 2, you would put a no. 2 next to the ‘C o’ row.
    • Likewise, info about Gardening would be filed under ‘G a’, Twitter would be in ‘T i’ and Olympics under ‘O i’ (however in the past it could have been filed under ‘O y’ – we’ll get to that later).  No existing heading?  
    • Create a new memorable heading under the first blank page.
    • If the principal word has only one vowel then file under both the first letter and the vowel.  So Art would be under ‘A a’ and Elf under ‘E e’.
  • When creating a new page, start at the first blank back of the left page so that you can always continue to the right side of the following leaf.  Once you get to the end of the book you can always number and fill up any yet-unused right-hand pages.

That is more or less the idea.  Locke had a good idea which was anecdotally used for the next hundred years at least, although after surfing a number of commonplace books I have yet to find an example of someone using it “in the wild”.  But still, there were limited alternatives apart from leaving some blank pages at the front and cramming alphabetical headings when they arose (a lax variation of Locke’s technique).

Why am I bringing this up if I don’t know if it was widely used?  Well, if one could trace the evolution of the concept of a commonplace book, Locke’s innovation is definitely a key step, even if that particular branch didn’t live up to its full potential.  Although it fit neatly into the staid taxonomy habits of the day, maybe people still valued the personal touch of creating their own system for their handy notepads?

Also, this type of indexing history gives librarian types a warm feeling and gets them a little weak at the knees.

Why commonplacing?

Let me start out by saying I am not an expert.  I also do not keep a detailed commonplace book.  But, like most aspiring writers, I have a history of cluttering my house, bags, desk and random notebooks with snippets of information.

There’s a better way, I thought.  And although I am as wired as the next person (pinterest, twitter, flickr, instagram, facebook, blogs, dropbox, windows drive etc etc), there’s something that seems different, and special, about the art of commonplacing.  But the difference between keeping a well-thumbed, carefully arranged commonplace book vs a list of “likes” via an electronic device?  Well that topic will be for another blog.

As I said, I’m an amateur, but from what I have seen already about commonplace books I can tell that:

  1. People have always had more or less the same thinking patterns.  Modern electronic tools are an imitation of techniques studied and trialed for hundreds of years.
  2. Commonplace books should be seen as much as works of art as they are research tools.
  3. Commonplace books are a unique portal into the mind of the authors.  Other writing forms – scrapbooking, memoirs, even journals – were often written self-consciously with a view for existing or future readers.  On the other hand, commonplace books were an everyday tool for memory, filled with snippets that the author found most worth recording/memorizing.  It is a direct perspective into how they saw the world.
  4. Taxonomy is sexy.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look through the glorious high-res scans (below) from the Harvard University Library collection.

I am not an expert.  I’ll be delving into this world mostly via Google searches and by flicking through online collections, and I’ll be following what peaks my interest.  A quick Google of “commonplace books” will show you commonplace books are beginning to be more popular, but from what I have found so far, this is limited to some short blogs and a high-level overview.  I want to dig deeper.  Much deeper.

Commonplacing is a lost art form, but any student, or writer, or anyone interested in learning for the sake of learning can tell you about their trials of notepads, paper scraps and messy index cards.

Lets dust off those beautiful old books and see what there is to discover.  We’ll all be better for it.

Still not convinced?  Check out this great blog posts for an intro:  How and Why to Keep a “Commonplace Book” – Ryan Halliday http://thoughtcatalog.com/ryan-holiday/2013/08/how-and-why-to-keep-a-commonplace-book/

And some light entertainment:  An Introduction to Commonplace Books http://theroadpavedwithwords.tumblr.com/post/66675803233/an-introduction-to-commonplace-books