I am only starting on this journey of reviewing commonplace books, but already I am starting to see the task as a mash-up of detective work, pop (and not so pop) culture research, fine wine tasting and forensic psychology. Not that I am qualified for any of the above, apart from the fine wine tasting, or course. But that is, after all, just a metaphor.
The Trinity College site has a great interface for their manuscripts (link via “read commonplaces online” page). The high-res scans load quickly and it looks like their selection is well-researched, if focused on a few individuals. One downside is that I can’t find a summary page of the manuscripts, and it’s practically impossible to link directly to a record (which I’d like to for this post).
I am looking through commonplace #3 in the Francis Longworth-Dames collection. If only we had journals like this to write in nowadays.
Stunning cover, and the inside has a great explanatory section about commonplaces.
The info in that section is worth another post in itself, but I can’t resist posting the introduction:
A common-place-book is a Register, or orderly collection of things which occur worthy to be noted and retained, in the course of a man’s reading or study; so disposed, as that, among a multiplicity of subjects, any one may easily be found.
Common-place-books are of great service: they are a kind of promptuaries or storehouses, wherein to reposit our own ideas, as well as the most valuable thoughts of others, to be ready at hand when wanted. Various plans have been laid down by different persons; but that which comes best recommended, is the method of that great master of order, Mr Locke.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a quote more laden with 19th Century English cultural elitism, but that’s part of the charm of commonplaces. The presumption that knowledge can be pinned down and categorised was the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of this era, but when applied to commonplaces the only requisite was the structure. Hester Lynch Piozzi’s Mynced Meat for Pyes is a stunning, often hilarious example of someone subverting this staid, very English definition of what makes a ‘proper’ commonplace and turning it into a completely different art form, but that work for another series of posts.
Back to the Irishman. At first glance it’s good to see Locke’s index in use – which I have found is actually rare in commonplaces “in the wild”.
I’ll be working through this text, and that will be for another post. What spurred me to write this short intro was page 18, which gives Longworth-Dames’ thoughts on starting a third journal.
I now commence the third volume of my common place book and from the utility and pleasure I have found in often referring to the two former volumes I am induced to continue the practice. How many ideas would have passed without remembrance or recollection and how little, otherwise, should I have been able to chain down these hurrying, fading children of the imagination and “snatch the faithless fugitives to light” [Disraeli, from An essay on the manners and genius of the literary character]. In truth there is a difficulty even after the lapse of a few days in recalling certain ideas to the mind & how much must that difficulty be increased by the revolution of years. If we forget to enter our ideas as they arise and forbear to “take the instant by the forward top – the inaudible & noiseless foot of time steals ere we can effect them” [Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 5 Scene 3] and totally erases them from our imagination.
We are so quick to congratulate ourselves, nowadays, on living in the “information age”, but as is often repeated, our skill is in using tools to access information if and when it is needed. How many of us can say we really grasp the art of capturing, assessing and using knowledge like this individual from over 150 years ago?