THE COMMONPLACE BOOK
BY MARIA POPOVA
“Long before there was the Internet, there was the commonplace book — a creative and intellectual ledger of fragmentary inspirations, which a writer would collect from other books and copy into a notebook, often alongside his or her reflections and riffs. These borrowed ideas are in dialogue with the writer’s own imagination and foment it into original thinking. Over long enough a period of time — years, decades, often a lifetime — the commonplace book, while composed primarily of copied passages, comes to radiate the singular sensibility of its keeper: beliefs are refined, ideas incubated, intellectual fixations fleshed out, and the outlines of a personhood revealed. (Brain Pickings is, in an unshakable sense, a commonplace book.)
Partway between medieval florilegium and modern-day Tumblr, the commonplace book has been particularly beloved by poets, whose business is the revelation of wholeness through the fragmentary. Among the most devoted and masterful practitioners of the art of the commonplace book was the poet W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973), who published his in 1970 as A Certain World: A Commonplace Book(public library) — a collection of quotations and reflections, arranged alphabetically by subject, beginning with Accedie and ending with Writing.
Although the bulk of the book consists of borrowings — most heavily from a handful of Auden’s favorite authors, including Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf, John Ruskin, and Paul Valéry — he also records a number of his own reflections on the subjects that most vividly animate his mind. Among them is the constellation of belief, doubt, certainty, enchantment, and truth.”