This is a Commonplace Book

This is a commonplace book–basically a collection of passages that mean something to me. Below I have quoted one writer’s description of such books, and highlighted phrases that suggest my hopes for this my commonplace book.  Please note this commonplace book is UNDER CONSTRUCTION.  Please do not construe it as a finished project or perfect model.

[Dutch humanist Desiderius] Erasmus’s recommendation that every reader keep a notebook of memorable quotations was widely and enthusiastically followed [from the early 1500s on]. Such notebooks, which came to be called “commonplace books,” or just “commonplaces,” became fixtures of Renaissance schooling. Every student kept one. By the seventeenth century, their use had spread beyond the schoolhouse. Commonplaces were viewed as necessary tools for the cultivation of an educated mind. In 1623, Francis Bacon observed that “there can hardly be anything more useful” as “a sound help for the memory” than “a good and learned Digest of Common Places.” By aiding the recording of written works in memory, he wrote, a well-maintained commonplace “supplies matter to invention.” Through the eighteenth century, according to American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron, “a gentleman’s commonplace book” served “both as a vehicle for and a chronicle of his [sic] intellectual development.”

The popularity of commonplace books ebbed as the pace of life quickened in the nineteenth century, and by the middle of the twentieth century memorization itself had begun to fall from favor. Progressive educators banished the practice from classrooms, dismissing it as a vestige of a less enlightened time. What had long been viewed as a stimulus for personal insight and creativity came to be seen as a barrier to imagination and simply as a waste of mental energy. . . . [emphasis added]

from Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (NY: Norton, 2010), 179-80.

In paragraphs immediately preceding the two I have recorded above, Carr gives other details about reading habits of the Dutch Erasmus and Roman Seneca. These details further explain the purpose and arrangement of my commonplace book:

. . . Erasmus, in his 1512 textbook De Copia, stressed the connection between memory and reading. He urged students to annotate their books, using “an appropriate little sign” to mark “occurrences of striking words, archaic or novel diction, brilliant flashes of style, adages, examples, and pithy remarks worth memorizing.” He also suggested that every student and teacher keep a notebook, organized by subject, “so that whenever he lights on anything worth noting down, he may write it in the appropriate section.” Transcribing the excerpts in longhand, and rehearsing them regularly, would help ensure that they remained fixed in the mind. The passages were to be viewed as “kinds of flowers,” which, plucked from the pages of books, could be preserved in the pages of memory.”

Erasmus, who as a schoolboy had memorized great swathes of classical literature, including the complete works of the poet Horace and the playwright Terence, was not recommending memorization for memorization’s sake or as a rote exercise for retaining facts. To him, memorizing was far more than a means of storage. It was the first step in a process of synthesis, a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading. He believed, and the classical historian Erika Rummel explains, that a person should “digest or internalize what he [sic] learns and reflect rather than slavishly reproduce the desirable qualities of the model author.” Far from being a mechanical, mindless process, Erasmus’s brand of memorization engaged the mind fully. It required, Rummel writes, “creativeness and judgment.”

Finally, one more paragraph from Carr’s book, because it offers the image of a bee, the little creature that teaches us how to feed ourselves by storing nutritious material:

Erasmus’s advice echoed that of the Roman Seneca, who also used a botanical metaphor to describe the essential role that memory plays in reading and in thinking. “We should imitate the bees,” Seneca wrote, “and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.” Memory, for Seneca as for Erasmus, was as much a crucible as a container. It was more than the sum of things remembered. It was something newly made, the essence of a unique self.

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