Monday, January 26, 2015

Darnton on Commonplace Books, One More Time

Came across this again, today: "Robert Darnton explains how keeping such a commonplace book changed the nature of reading for early autodidacts (and how it can change the way you read today)":
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. . . It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. . .They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.” (The New York Review of Books, 2000)
Let's look at this:
  1. "Time was when readers kept commonplace books" - TRUE
  2. "Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading" - TRUE
  3. "adding observations made in the course of daily life" - PERHAPS
  4. "Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts." FALSE
  5. "Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things ... They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it" - TRUE, at least sort of
  6. and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality” - FALSE
(4) and (6) constitute an anachronistic account of commonplacing. The idea was to arrange the passage around common places, i.e. according to what everyone would consider a common place just because it was a place in the known ordered universe.[1]

This was the way people kept commonplace books until roughly the end of the seventeenth century. John Locke, who proposed a new method to arrange the headings according to an alphabetical scheme, though he himself remained very much captive to the original method. His "ideas" correspond very much to commonplaces.[2]

To make "a book of your own, one stamped with your personality" is a notion that belongs to later times, not to a period in which to "invent something new" was considered bad. If you find that hard to believe, look at the rules and regulation for the guilds of tradesmen and artisan that expressly forbade the invention of new things. It may have been a good thing that the guilds were prohibited in the eighteenth century—at least for the new ways of doing things in the trades. But it seems to me more certain that overcoming the commonplace method in note-taking was essential for the sciences and our conception of "personality."


1. See Erasmus on Commonplaces.
2. See here.

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