Uncommon passages are commonplace
Renaissance students were taught to preserve passages from their reading, called commonplaces, in notebooks. This tradition was not known to me when, at law school, I began copying favorite passages. Thirty-seven years later, I am on my 37th notebook.Skip to next paragraph
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I derive enormous pleasure from going through these notebooks, which contain the highlights of my adult reading.
When reading a book, I mark passages of interest. After completing the book, I go through it page by page, recording the passages into a notebook.
The other day I pulled down from the top shelf of the bedroom closet the first of my commonplace books. It is dated 1962. Reading it, I came upon these old favorites.
James Boswell on Samuel Johnson: He "did not strut or stand on tiptoe: he only did not stoop." The generous words of an admiring friend.
That year, my law-school studies were coming to an end. Understandably, the following passage appealed to me. Jeremiah Gridley, a distinguished Boston lawyer, advises John Adams on his chosen career: "Pursue the study of law, young man, rather than the gain of it. Make money enough to keep out of the briars, but give your main attention to study."
I am old enough to have memories of World War II. How admirable the English seemed to me. As London endured terrible bombing, the Queen (now the Queen Mother) was asked whether the royal family would leave the city. She responded: "The Princesses could not leave without me - and I could not leave without the King - and, of course, the King will never leave."
As each year comes to a close, I am not joyful at its passing - so many things left undone. As this year, this century, and this millennium come to a close, may I recall these lines of Rainer Maria Rilke, recorded in my notebook in 1962: "And now let us believe in the long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been."
My current commonplace book, Volume 37, is on the dining-room table, close at hand, ready for use. I enjoy reading and rereading the Greek plays. These lines are from Euripides:
Ten thousand men possess ten
A few bear fruit; the others go awry.
But he who garners day by day
the good of life, he is happiest. Blessed is he.
Devoted New Yorker that I am, how could I not include Whitman?
City of the world! (for all races
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and out with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores! city of tall faades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city! mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Thomas Mallon gives this reason for keeping a diary: To "let each day live beyond its midnight." I keep a commonplace book for the same reason: to extend beyond the day the pleasures of my reading.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society