COMMONPLACE BOOKS (or COMMONPLACES) were a way to complete knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were, essentially, SCRAPBOOKS, filled with items of every kind —- medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, proverbs and legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students and scholars AS AN AID for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was UNIQUE to its creator’s interests. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.
COMMONPLACE is a translation of the Latin term LOCUS COMMUNIS (from Greek –‘ topos koinos’) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings., such as John Milton’s Commonplace Book. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.
Commonplace Books are not diaries, nor travelogues, with which they can be contrasted. English Enlightenment Philosopher, John Locke wrote the 1706 book, “A NEW METHOD OF MAKING COMMON-PLACE-BOOKS”, in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by ‘subject’ and ‘category’, using such ley topics as LOVE, POLITICS or RELIGION. Commonplace Books, it must be stressed, are not journals which are chronological and introspective. Commonplace Books are collections of things that are unrelated, except by being regarded as DELIGHTS BY THEIR COLLECTOR.
Kenneth (Lord) Baker, who was Margaret Thatcher’s technology supremo and education secretary and John Major’s home secretary and is a Godfather of the cartoonist’s art and a 21st century evangelist for University Technical Colleges (UTCs), has collected not RAGS but RICHES. His book MORE RAGS OF TIME, is a short collection of some of the short quotations from others that in his 80 years (so far) have caught Baker’s attention, commanded his respect or simply made him smile. From the very first page, the wisdom is ASTRINGENT, sometimes CYNICAL, sometimes RUEFUL, usually KINDLY and always AMUSED.
The compilation of Commonplace Books has fallen from custom. It used to be the habit of youth to begin assembling and a habit of old age to publish a lifelong collection of things that have meant something to us. Perhaps, we have no time now, or perhaps we’d have no readers. Perhaps, even, we have become arrogant and wish only to provide platforms for our own reflections not those of others.
Here are a few examples : Francis Bacon — Better sit still, than rise and fall. A remark whispered by the ancient Greek statesman Phocion to his friend — Diogenes Laertius, as the crowd applauded his speech —— Have I said something foolish ? P. G. Wodehouse —(a) — Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove;(b) It is good telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts.At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the clover hoof. Saki — Never be a pioneer : The Early Christian Gets The Fattest Lion. G. K. Chesterton — I’ve searched all the parks, in all the cities and found no statues of committees.
Francis Bacon’s own Commonplace Book ———– The Promos of Formularies and Elegancies is a collection of passages and phrases Bacon made to assist his own essay-writing and speed-making. It helps us understand a man, some of whose life was mysterious, and who was not inclined to psycho-analyse himself. The 17th century mystical writer Thomas Traherne —- You never enjoy the world aright, till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens and crowned with the stars ; and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world and more than so, because men are in it who are EVERY ONE SOLE HEIRS AS WELL AS YOU.
Kenneth Baker (in the words of Alan Bennett) suggests his answer to —– WOULD ANYONE BUY THE BOOK ? (Commonplace Book —– collections and quotations from others ) “I am now 80, an age that entitles one to be listened to, though not necessarily heeded.”