Approaching volume 27
A COMMONPLACE book is a collection of literary passages, quotations, occasional thoughts, and memorabilia. It reflects the interests of the compiler. In addition to selections from my reading, mine contains comments on current events, art exhibitions, and operas I have attended, foreign travel, and a few personal ruminations. At law school I began the practice of writing down passages from my reading that had special appeal. A quarter century later, I am launched on volume 26 of my commonplace book.
Impressed? Don't be. Compared to Emerson, I am moving at a snail's pace. Starting at age 17, he filled more than 200 notebooks over the next 50 years. He titled the first volume of his commonplace book, ``The Wide World No. 1.'' (Gogol called his, ``Hold-All Note-book.'')
When reading a book, I place pencil marks in the margin, and after completing it, copy favorite passages into my commonplace book.
Why do I bother making this effort? Partly, to remember what has given me pleasure. Perhaps also to make important events less ephemeral, such as the reading of a book that has changed my life. As I have undertaken more writing in recent years, my commonplace book has become a treasure trove of ideas for new pieces.
For me, reading and rereading the entries is a delight. What I put down in 1962 gives me pleasure in 1987, my tastes not having changed that much over the years. (An indication, I hope, of early development, not stagnation!) At each reading I encounter old friends from history and literature.
Many of the entries in my commonplace book deal with governance and leadership, reflecting I believe, the best thinking and instincts of those who have been before us on the road. Such as:
Jefferson: ``The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader; to pursue them requires not the aid of many counsellors.''
Washington: ``It is not the part of a good citizen to despair of the republic.''
Franklin: ``I have long been accustomed to receive more blame as well as more praise, than I deserved. It is the lot of every public man, and I leave one account to balance the other.''
Lincoln: ``[T]o elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.''
Other entries provide guidance in the difficult business of living life:
Lyautey, colonial administrator and marshal of France: ``A bad month. Too much talk, no action. Chattering, com- monplaces, complaining for complain-ing's sake, childishness, sulkiness. Little self-examination for all my saying was doing so. I have given myself the semblance of reflection and have reflected very little.''
Samuel Johnson: ``We see a little, and form an opinion: we see more, and change it. This inconstancy and unsteadiness, to which we must so often find ourselves liable, ought certainly to teach us moderation and forebearance towards those who cannot accommodate themselves to our sentiments.''
Keats sought to avoid dark moods when ``any little vexation grows in five Minutes into a theme for Sophocles.''
Primo Levi, the Italian writer, used this Yiddish proverb as an epigraph for the third volume of his autobiography, ``The Periodic Table'': ``Troubles overcome are good to tell.''
A number of entries are in my commonplace book for the great pleasure they give me:
The philosopher Martin Buber: Men are ``the brownbread on whose crust I break my teeth, a bread of which I can never have enough.... Aye, those tousle-headed and good-for-nothings, how I love them.''
Balzac to his sister: ``Do you know, I've spent a whole week ruminating and broodulating and eatulating and strollulating without doing anything useful?''
The painter Joan Mir'o, describing a visit, as a young man, to a museum in Barcelona: ``There was a Monet landscape in that show. It was so beautiful that when the guard wasn't looking I went over and kissed it.''
Jan. 1, 1500. Venice. Titian calling to Giorgione from the street: ``Zorzo! Get up, Zorzo! Our century has begun!''
May I feel this same sense of expectation 13 years hence at the start of a new century!