Quote – Thoreau on journals and life

I have been thinking a lot about this Thoreau quote.  I seem to get something new from it every time I read it…

“My Journal is that of me which would else spill over and run to waste, gleanings from the field which in action I reap.  I must not live for it but in it for the gods.

“They are my correspondents, to whom daily I send off this sheet post-paid.  I am clerk in their counting-room, and at evenings transfer the account from day-book to ledger.  It is as a leaf which hangs over my head in the path.  I bend the twig and write my prayers on it; then letting it go, the bough springs up and shows the scrawl to heaven.  As if it were not kept shut in my side; it is vellum in the pastures; it is parchment on the hills.  I find it every-where as free as the leaves which troop along the lanes in autumn.  The crow, the goose, the eagle carry my quill, and the wind blows the leaves as far as I go.  Or; if my imagination does not soar, but gropes in slime and mud, then I write with a reed.”

H.D. Thoreau – 8th February 1841

It’s funny.  Someone who could not write so elegant a quote is someone who could not claim to truly feel the sensation he describes, since the kind of personality that dictates a lifetime of compulsive journaling is a pre-requisite for having that type of feeling.

That’s why I read it with awe and not a little hidden envy, since I know I could never have that pure a feeling about the art of writing.

It is a great example of the commonly read but not-often followed refrain of “if you want to become a good writer, write a lot, every day.”

Quote – New Years diary

“Having omitted to carry on my diary for two or three days, I lost heart to make it up, and left it unfilld for many a month and day.  During this period nothing has happend worth particular notice.  The same occupations, the same amusements the same occasional alterations of spirits, gay or depressd, the same absence of all sensible or rationale cause for the one or the other – I half grieve to take up my pen, and doubt if it is worth while to record such an infinite quantity of nothing.  But hang it!  I hate to be beat so here goes for better behaviour.” Sir Walter Scott – 1st January 1829 (The Journal of Sir Walter Scott – edited by W. E K Anderson).

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Who pays for fornication and witch doctors?

I’d like to imagine people go to old collectibles auctions because they have a passion for the art and the topic.  However, when the sale item is a nearly three-hundred-year-old apology letter for fornication (yours for the generous price of around £400-£600) I’ll be a bit less weirded out if I can believe the buyer is in it purely for the re-sale value.

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Fornication at Invaluable.com

I added a post a while ago about the auction market for commonplace books and ‘ephemera’.  It’s a shame that these letters, journals, diaries, etc are so ubiquitous and easily stored/shipped, that they become perfect items to trade, since the contents are then out of the ‘public’ eye.

This example from Invaluable.com is a good one – “Description: Fornication etc.- [Examples of legal and religious agreements, orders etc.]”.  Probably an interesting bit of social history there.

Or, a treasure from the annals of quackery – a Homeopathic Physicians Commonplace Scrapbook and Ledger by Dr James Grant Gilchrist – on www.read-em-again.com (online Americana and ephemera site) for $1,250.00.  I’m sure there is some juicy history in there but the discovery will depend on both the expertise and inclination of whoever wants to fork out the $$.

That’s why I love when I find online scans that show more than a few teasing images (pun intended).  If you are interested in commonplace books, even for the artistic value (like me) if not for historical or academic research, check out the list of links to online scanned texts via my Read commonplaces online page.  These links are gold for the average hobbyist, and most of the sites are well-curated with gorgeous HD scans (please send me a message if you know of any more!).

The one down-side of these links is that – naturally – most of the content is heavily copyright protected, even if it’s freely available to search.  I have a list of commonplace books I’d like to review and delve into and – although I am sure my posts would come fairly squarely under ‘fair use’ – I want to respect the institutions who make their stuff so freely available by playing fair and asking permission as much as possible.  How they react is yet to be seen.

Is there a fair middle-ground?  If there’s no $ market for this ‘ephemera’ we probably wouldn’t have the quality and quantity we have now, but having a $1,000 text is the same as a book being hidden away (and un-scanned) in a dusty corner of a locked university archive.  The supply side seems to be well covered, but how do you increase the (fair and open-source) demand?

 

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HIstorical treasure-box, on sale at www.read-em-again.com

Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe

Here is a link to an interesting post (link below) by Marguerite Happe on “Project Dust Bunny”, a research project by the Folger Shakespeare Library to collect and analyse fragments of DNA and other articles that collect in the spine of old books.

dust_dancing_in_the_sunlight_me_074aWhile at first it sounds like an excellent idea, she makes some very good points about what could be a slippery slope.  While it sounds like a great idea to analyse these fragments, there is a question about whether the article is ‘part’ of the book.  For example, if a famous author decided to bookmark a diary with a lock of hair, should the hair be counted as ‘part’ of that historical artifact?  How about insects, leaf pressings or other nature samples?

For Project Dust Bunny, the American Libraries Magazine comments that the researchers are deciding how much dust, etc to take out, or whether to leave it until the scientific analysis is advanced enough.

Which leaves another question.  If I bought a book at an auction which was found to be owned by Shakespeare himself, would I ‘own’ any of his skin and DNA within the creases?  To analyse it?  To publish medical or family history data from the DNA that could be embarrassing to his descendants?

It all has too many shades of Henrietta Lacks, and in a way I am glad I will never have enough money to afford a purchase that would necessitate that type of ethical brain teaser!

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When I was in Special Collections today doing research for a Hitchcock project, I ran into Wendel Cox, the World’s Best Reference Librarian. As we were chatting (and they were working on exhi…

Source: Project Dust Bunny and the First Folio Tour | Marguerite Happe

… because famous people do it

The website (and great podcast) the Art of Manliness has a great article from 2010 about the pocket notebooks of famous people.

Some of the worst advice you could get would probably be “you should do this because it’s what famous people do”, but let’s look into this.  What do famous people all have in common – apart from a heavy dose of ego?

I’d say it’s clarity of purpose in at least one area of their life.  For good or bad, what defines someone famous is that they have confidence in themselves to pursue something nobody has done before, or to pursue the same thing but with a dedication and purpose that most other people do not have.

To have purpose you have to understand and motivate yourself.  Someone else can drive you but then your limit will be that person’s motivation.  Unless you are being mentored by Kanye West or Richard Branson, that won’t be enough to become famous.

You need to understand yourself, to soak in the world and re-combine what you see and hear.  You do that to understand the topic but also to understand yourself, to discover what angles you are using to look at and to explore new ones.

It is what Steven Johnson calls “in a very real sense textual play”, something earnest university students do under prompting from their lecturers, and which Google replicates in algorithm format whenever you type in a search result.

The difference in having a notebook you can hold is that it is an external construction that has become a part of you, you intellectual beaver.  It is something you can put down and forget, then pick up after months, years, and look at with fresh eyes and fresh insight.

Blogs, Google searches, they are useful but they are intentional.  Evernote and computer folders can become breeding grounds for inspiration, but they are hard to navigate and could never compare to simply skimming and flicking through the pages of a worn notebook.  Well, at least not until I figure out how to use Tags in Evernote the right way.

Commonplace book review – Matthew Day(s?)

What does it mean to be remembered?  In around 360 years will someone be reading your words only because, by chance, a single page of your notes had a passing reference to some person, or event that history decided was “noteworthy”?

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What if that is history’s only memory of you?  Despite what you think is worth remembering?  Do you care if your thoughts are remembered but you are not?  Or if they are remembered but people are not sure if it was you who said them or someone else… your son, or maybe your father?

Around the early 1600s, either Matthew Day, or Matthew Day, wrote a utilitarian commonplace (you can find it here), in a satchel-sized, gold-embossed book…  Continue reading

Taking the Steinbeck, hold the Starbucks

So in less than a month I am taking my first ever trip to the US.  Part work and part holiday, my wife and I are making the most of the time by “road tripping” to see the real America behind the typical tourist routes.

This trip is only a little longer than two weeks, but it is something I have wanted to do for years.  You see, even before restoration, storage container auction and renovation shows became popular, my wife and I have talked about antiquing and just shopping around for Americana (or Europana(sp!)) and taking it back to little old New Zealand.

I love New Zealand, but one can never get over the feeling you are right at the edge of the world.  For all the culture you can siphon from an internet connection, sitting and looking at famous art, historical locations and youtube videos of famous writers only adds to the feeling of disconnect from history.  Nothing compares with the visceral experience of being in a world-class city, where even if you’re a cab driver or a waiter, at least you’re a cab driver or waiter in a place where the world, where history is “happening”.  You either get it or you don’t.

But the older I get the more I realise it’s either move overseas, or bring what I want from that world to me.  For the latter, there’s nothing better, I think, than the written word.  Compact, portable, I have a vision of sifting through car boot sales and collectors fairs in the Deep South, filling box-loads of books into a container, one that grows with out-of-print texts, musty tomes rescued from the bottom of a second-hand store shelf.  Some even have yellowing scraps of local newspapers between the leaves, to serve as bookmarks.  Neatly hand-written dedications on the inside cover, or, most prized of all, marginalia in tight script, a running commentary on the book itself, straight from the mind of someone from that period.

Interspersed in the container is other Americana.  Dented and worn nineteenth century furniture, tarnished metal fittings, mountains of old relics crying out for some repairs and a coat of lacquer.  And on top, boxes with the latest artists from whichever pocket of Manhatten or San Francisco is the most teeth-achingly “cool” at this moment.  One off prints, new t-shirt designs, hand-crafted and 3D printed jewellery, sculptures, carefully hand-made notebooks and stacks of original stencil and multimedia art.

Not this trip, but someday.

Exporting US culture to the world has become a cliche since the 90s, but I think there’s still a huge opportunity.  And who says US cultural exports need to be synonymous with Starbucks, Coke or Michael Bay films?  That’s not the real America, is it?  I’ve never been there so I wouldn’t know, but I’m going there to begin to scratch below that glossy surface.

I can’t wait.