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.”


Commonplace review: F Longworth-Dames post #1

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.

Commonplace leather cover

Stunning cover, and the inside has a great explanatory section about commonplaces.

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Who cares about notebooks, anyway?

Imagine you are the centre of the world.  Not difficult for many of us, deep down.  Regardless of how much we understand about how others live and see the world, we are the director, author and sole actor in the screenplay of our lives.

We crave the vicarious experience of seeing through another person’s eyes, through a camera lens or the words on the page, and it is not a mistake that the words we use to describe a masterful work is connected to this feeling.  We are “caught up”, “carried away”, we “lose ourselves” in the story.  But even in the best works, we are always conscious of ourselves as the observer, something that artists play with, exploit, comment on, but can never overcome.

We are the amalgam of those tangled thoughts in our heads, conflicting, contradicting, negotiating.  We see ourselves in the singular by the mere fact that we have only one body to express the multitude of potential actions that compete for primacy every waking moment.  And we are a generation of the image, the presentation to the world of the best of our faces, the one that ends up on our Facebook page, our Instagram account, our studied words on a self-conscious blog.

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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.

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.