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 I dig old books.

 Est. 1998

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Quotations about Commonplace Books,
Common-placing, and Commonplacers


Proverbs turn into quotations, and quotations turn into commonplaces, leaving their creators behind. ~Willis Goth Regier, Quotology, 2010,

The advantages of a Common Place Book are incalculable. From its pleasing variety the unlearned may, without intense study, gather the richest flowers of literature; and the learned may insensibly increase their store of knowledge, from a retrospect of the elegant witticisms or profound reasoning of others. ~R. Pitkeathley, 1840

Keep a commonplace book, and put into it, not only facts and thoughts, but observations on form, and colour, and nature, and little sketches, even to the form of beautiful leaves. ~Charles Kingsley (1819–1875)

Robert Southey... like one of his best-known works, was only one long "Commonplace Book." His books were in reality dearer to him than the human species... ~George Barnett Smith, Shelley: A Critical Biography, 1877

Dear Diary,
      For obvious reasons, I never told you about my notebook, with a cover as green as mansions long gone, which I use as a commonplace book, a phrase which here means "place where I have collected passages from some of the most important books I have read." These passages hold some of the most crucial secrets in this sad and flammable world. ~Lemony Snicket, Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography, 2002

      No man, engaged in literary occupations, ought to be without the advantage of a Common Place Book, which may serve as the register of his sentiments, resulting either from the exploring activity of a contemplative mind, the energy of superior genius, or investigations of a scientific nature.
      Without this aid many valuable thoughts must be lost in the whirl of less important business; and Mr. Locke greatly benefited the cause of literature when he stooped from loftier speculations to form the plan of a very valuable repository of this kind. ~The British Critic, February 1794

      The man who keeps a commonplace-book too often resembles the dog which carefully buries a bone for future use, yet seldom or never returns to dig it up; and it is positively pathetic to think of the intellectual dainties which probably lie buried in many a pale and faded volume of this class.
      I propose then to dig up some of the old bones which are to be found in a repository of this kind which lately came into my hands, and to serve up to the reader — if I can catch him — a few curious odds and ends culled from this source; a few literary or linguistic morsels, which I hope may not prove altogether insipid. ~Patrick Maxwell, 1891

However, he replied at hazard, with
      A modest confidence and calm assurance,
      Which lent his learned lucubrations pith,
      And pass'd for arguments of good endurance.
      That prodigy, Miss Araminta Smith
      (Who at sixteen translated "Hercules Furens"
      Into as furious English), with her best look,
      Set down his sayings in her common-place book.
Juan knew several languages — as well
      He might — and brought them up with skill, in time
      To save his fame with each accomplish'd belle,
      Who still regretted that he did not rhyme.
      There wanted but this requisite to swell
      His qualities (with them) into sublime:
      Lady Fitz-Frisky, and Miss Mævia Mannish,
      Both long'd extremely to be sung in Spanish.
~Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1819

Darwin's notebooks lie at the tail end of a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England:  the practice of maintaining a "commonplace" book. Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters — just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. The great minds of the period — Milton, Bacon, Locke — were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, "commonplacing," as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one's reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations... ~Steven Johnson, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, 2010,

The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius (second century) is a miscellany of notes on history, grammar, law, literature, and whatever else caught his fancy. As such it is an early example of a commonplace book, a notebook in which people transcribed memorable bits of conversation and copied out favorite passages from their reading. According to Earle Havens, commonplace books constitute "the foundation of the early production of standard works of reference that are taken for granted in the present century." Some are extraordinary. ~Willis Goth Regier, Quotology, 2010,

Anthology is the Greek work to which the Latin florilegium is a cousin. Both mean "flower picking or collecting." The anthology goes back to classical antiquity, regardless of what it may have been labeled over the centuries. Sometimes the contents of a collection were not planned in advance, and in the majority of these situations with entries made over a period of time into a book of blank pages, the result was a commonplace book. When there seemed to be a plan of organization, a specific focus, and a plan to publish, the result was an anthology... ~Bill Katz, "Commonplace Books to Books of Quotations," Cuneiform to Computer: A History of Reference Sources, 1998

Lay down a method also for your reading, for which you allot a certain share of your mornings; let it be in a consistent and consecutive course, and not in that desultory and immethodical manner, in which many people read scraps of different authors, upon different subjects. Keep a useful and short commonplace book of what you read, to help your memory only, and not for pedantic quotations. ~Philip Stanhope, 4th earl of Chesterfield, 1750

Such a book presents doctrines in essence, science in abstract, ethics in maxims, wisdom in proverbs, observation and experience in the ripe fruit. It is like those gravelly beds into which the mountain torrents have washed nuggets of gold. It would require much and various reading to obtain such an amount of valuable thought. If a patient and judicious student, with access to an ample library, should enter in a common-place book of all the choice thoughts of his reading, he would require many years to obtain a book containing as much of wisdom in beautiful forms as this one contains. It is multum in parvo... Such a work as this does not invite to plagiarism, but to reflection... We are more imitative than we are willing to allow, more so than we suppose, and mentally as well as physically. Hence the value of familiarity with strong thought and charming style. ~Edward Thomson, 1863

It must not be supposed that Sir James's impassioned rhetoric was due to the inspiration of the moment:  all his sentiments were darkly pondered and duly packed down into top-heavy sentences in a Commonplace Book before he delivered them to the world. ~John Oliver Hobbes (Pearl Mary Teresa Richards), Some Emotions and a Moral, 1891

In reading the Reporters, enter in a Common-place book every case of value, condensed into the narrowest compass possible which will admit of presenting distinctly the principles of the case. This operation is doubly useful, inasmuch as it obliges the student to seek out the pith of the case, and habituates him to a condensation of thought, and to an acquisition of the most valuable of all talents, that of never using two words where one will do. It fixes the case too more indelibly in the mind. ~Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

      COMMON-PLACE BOOK... 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 be easily found.
      Common-place books are of great service: they are a kind of promptuaries or storehouses, wherein to reposit the most valuable parts of authors, to be ready at hand when wanted. ~The Cylopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, by Abraham Rees with the assistance of eminent professional gentlemen, 1805

But what we can, we glean in this vile age
      Of chaff, although our gleanings be not grist.
      I must not quite omit the talking sage,
      Kit-Cat, the famous conversationist,
      Who, in his common-place book, had a page
      Prepar'd each morn for evenings. "List, oh! list!"
      "Alas, poor ghost!" — What unexpected woes
      Await those who have studied their bon-mots!
Firstly, they must allure the conversation,
      By many windings, to their clever clinch;
      And, secondly, must let slip no occasion,
      Nor bate (abate) their hearers of an inch,
      But take an ell — and make a great sensation,
      If possible; and thirdly, never flinch
      When some smart talker puts them to the test,
      But seize the last word, which no doubt's the best.
~Lord Byron, Don Juan, 1819

It's deadly commonplace, but, after all, the commonplaces are the great poetic truths. ~Robert Louis Stevenson, "Weir of Hermiston," 1896

For, what though his Head  be empty, provided his Common place-Book  be full; And if you will bate him but the Circumstances of Method, and Style, and Grammar, and Invention; allow him but the common Priviledges of transcribing from others, and digressing from himself, as often as he shall see Occasion; He will desire no more Ingredients towards sitting up a Treatise, that shall make a very comely Figure on a Bookseller's Shelf, there to be preserved neat and clean, for a long Eternity, adorn'd with the Heraldry of its Title, fairly inscribed on a Label; never to be thumb'd or greas'd by Students, nor bound to everlasting Chains of Darkness in a Library:  But when the Fulness of Time is come, shall happily undergo the Tryal of Purgatory, in order to ascend the Sky. Without these Allowances, how is it possible, we Modern Wits should ever have an Opportunity to introduce our Collections listed under so many thousand Heads of a different Nature? for want of which, the Learned World would be deprived of infinite Delight, as well as Instruction, and we our selves buried beyond Redress in an inglorious and undistinguisht Oblivion. ~Jonathan Swift, "A Digression in Praise of Digressions," A Tale of a Tub: Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind. To Which is Added, An Account of a Battel Between the Antient and Modern Books in St. James's Library, 1704

A Common-place-Book is what a provident Poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial Reason, that great Wits have short Memories; and whereas, on the other Hand, Poets being LYARS  by Profession, ought to have good Memories; to reconcile these, a Book of this sort is in the Nature of a Supplemental Memory; or a Record of what occurs remarkable in every Day's Reading or Conversation:  There you enter not only your own Original Thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other Men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a Rule, when an Author is in your Books, you have the same Demand upon him for his Wit, as a Merchant has for your Money, when you are in his. ~Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet: Together With a Proposal for the Encouragement of Poetry in this Kingdom," 1721

Nothing can contribute more to obviate the inconvenience and difficulties attending a vacant or wandering mind, than the arrangement and regular disposal of our thoughts in a well ordered and copious common-place book... ~John Bell's Common-Place Book, Form'd generally upon the Principles Recommended and Practised by Mr. John Locke, 1770

I was in love at the time. Her name was, I think, Naomi, and I wanted to talk to somebody about her. Dick had a reputation for taking an intelligent interest in other men's love affairs. He would let a lover rave by the hour to him, taking brief notes the while in a bulky red-covered volume labeled "Commonplace Book." Of course everybody knew that he was using them merely as raw material for his dramas, but we did not mind so long as he would only listen. ~Jerome K. Jerome, "Dick Dunkerman's Cat," Sketches in Lavender, Blue, and Green, 1897

A well arranged scrapbook, filled with choice selections, is a most excellent companion for anyone who has the least literary taste. ~Chaning, as quoted in Charles F. Schutz, Sayings: Proverbs, Maxims, Mottoes, 1915

Into the darkness and the hush of night
Slowly the landscape sinks, and fades away,
And with it fade the phantoms of the day,
The ghosts of men and things, that haunt the light.
The crowd, the clamour, the pursuit, the flight,
The unprofitable splendour and display,
The agitations, and the cares that prey
Upon our hearts, all vanish out of sight.
The better life begins; the world no more
Molests us; all its records we erase
From the dull common-place book of our lives,
That like a palimpsest is written o'er
With trivial incidents of time and place,
And lo! the ideal, hidden beneath, revives.
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), "Night"

Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that the Circumlocution Office not only was blameless in this matter, but was commendable in this matter, was extollable to the skies in this matter. Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman, that, although the Circumlocution Office was invariably right and wholly right, it never was so right as in this matter. Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that it would have been more to his honour, more to his credit, more to his good taste, more to his good sense, more to half the dictionary of commonplaces, if he had left the Circumlocution Office alone, and never approached this matter. ~Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit, 1857

Erasmus (1466–1536) published three widely reprinted and much used commonplace books... The quotations, adages, proverbs, brief narratives, excerpts, anecdotes, compiler comments, etc. broke down the whole of classical antiquity into bite-size snippets of sayings that could be introduced into discourse either in whole or paraphrased. ~Bill Katz, "Commonplace Books to Books of Quotations," Cuneiform to Computer: A History of Reference Sources, 1998

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches... ~Steven Johnson, "The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book," 2010,

At age sixteen Bartlett took a job in the University Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before he was thirty he owned the store. "'Ask John Bartlett' was the customary advice when any one had difficulty in finding a book or a quotation, and Bartlett was so anxious to deserve his reputation that he began keeping a commonplace-book." That book became Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, a success from the start. ~Willis Goth Regier, Quotology, 2010,  [quoting Sarah G. Bowerman's Bartlett bio in Dictionary of American Biography, 1929 —tg]

Private commonplace books have almost gone out — a disuse which perhaps has its good side as well as its bad. The habit of quotation has gone out very much likewise, which undoubtedly has its good side as well as its bad. ~George Saintsbury, 1895

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published 2023 Feb 10
last saved 2023 Oct 25