Commonplace books
November 18, 2005 11:00 AM   Subscribe

The paper analogue of the blog is not the diary, but rather the commonplace book. With the availability of relatively cheap paper beginning as early as the 14th century, people began to collect knowledge in commonplace books. Bits of quotes, reference materials, summaries of arguments, all contained in a handy bound volume. This merchant's commonplace, for example, dates from 1312 and contains hand-drawn diagrams of Venetian ships and descriptions of Venice's merchant culture. An English commonplace dating to the 15th century, the Book of Brome, contains poems, notations on memorial law, lists of expenses, and diary entries. John Locke devised a method for keeping a commonplace. Thomas Jefferson kept both legal and literary commonplaces, and owned a copy of Sir John Randolph's legal commonplace, published in 1680.
posted by monju_bosatsu (23 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The Jefferson books are the real highlight of this post. Not only are they scanned and online in their entirety, the images are actually quite readable. Unfortunately, many of the really interesting vintage commonplace books are not available online. The British Library's collection includes, for example, John Milton’s commonplace book with notes on Ethics, Economics, Politics and Literature; Sir Walter Ralegh’s ‘Tower’ notebook, written c1606-1608 while he was imprisoned, replete with library lists, poetry and an illustrated guide to the Middle East; and a commonplace book attributed to Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), polymath and friend of Ralegh, Kepler and Marlowe, featuring the earliest known quotation from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. You can, however, get them on microfilm.

Related: 43 Folders on Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin keeping notes of their lives.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:01 AM on November 18, 2005

I'm sure why there's a sudden surge of interest in the blog as commonplace book; it's already a commonplace itself. But Milton's commonplace book, which most academic libraries have an edition of, is pretty cool too. You can see an image of a page here. Swift also had a commonplace book, though I don't think the entire thing's been edited. Commonplace books are a place we find women's writing in an era where there's less than we might like.
posted by medievalist at 11:24 AM on November 18, 2005

Great post!
posted by CKZ at 11:31 AM on November 18, 2005

Best of Web!
posted by caddis at 11:32 AM on November 18, 2005

One of my favourite analog websites is A Tale of a Tub.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:38 AM on November 18, 2005

Awesome, thanks. I love commonplace books. I keep several through disorganization and dissolution, which explains as much (I mean aside from my lack of genius) about why I'll never be a Swift/Jefferson/Milton/Franklin as anything else could.
posted by OmieWise at 11:55 AM on November 18, 2005

This is incredibly interesting to me.

Thank you very much.

(And it's so good to see you posting monju_bosatsu!)
posted by dios at 11:56 AM on November 18, 2005

Man, shit, this Jefferson character is all Greek to me. I'll be here all week.
posted by OmieWise at 11:57 AM on November 18, 2005

Great post. My five year old loves the Lemony Snicket books, and has picked up the term from the series. So whenever she wants to doodle, she asks for her "commonplace book".
posted by stinkycheese at 12:19 PM on November 18, 2005

Excellent. Thanks.
posted by gramschmidt at 12:34 PM on November 18, 2005

This is the type of post that makes me <3 metafilter.
posted by dial-tone at 12:42 PM on November 18, 2005

Aw, the merchant's commonplace link gave me this refusal:
"Your query encountered the following error: Arguments are of the wrong type, are out of acceptable range, or are in conflict with one another"
Perhaps the site has been Meta-Filtered?
posted by Cranberry at 1:22 PM on November 18, 2005

Crap, sorry about that, Cranberry. Fixed links: Zibaldone da Canal. Book of Brome.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:31 PM on November 18, 2005

We had a commonplace book in one of the libraries at Cornell U. back in the 80's. It became a popular passtime to go to that library just to see what other people had written.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:39 PM on November 18, 2005

Mod note: fixed mb's links in the fpp
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 3:06 PM on November 18, 2005

Reminds me of shovelware from the early 90s. Like when CD-ROMs first got popular and affordable, you would see CDs for sale with all the demos and shareware utilities that would fit on them.
posted by redteam at 4:10 PM on November 18, 2005

I think the paper analogue of many blogs is the diary, but there are obviously more than a few gems out there that are analogous to commonplace books.

Nothing like an excellent post to restore my faith in humanity.
Thanks, monju_bosatsu
posted by jaronson at 8:03 PM on November 18, 2005

Lovely post, monju.
posted by melissa may at 10:02 PM on November 18, 2005

Good thought, brilliant post. Thanks.
posted by Miko at 10:37 PM on November 18, 2005

Great post, really interesting.
posted by amro at 8:59 AM on November 19, 2005

Keep in mind that the personal diary (as something separate from an account book or a log) grew out of the commonplace book tradition.
posted by medievalist at 10:42 AM on November 19, 2005

From the first link:

On Wednesday, September 12 2001, the Osborn Collection will sponsor a lecture "Commonplace Books and the Practices of Learning in Early Modern Europe" by Anthony Grafton

I was there! An occasion to restore one's faith in humane learning .. 24 hours after 9/11, several hundred people attending a lecture on early modern commonplace books. And it was a superb lecture -- Grafton at his very best -- sadly unavailable online, though this article by Ann Blair covers some of the same ground.

The main point I took away from Grafton's lecture was that commonplace books were designed for storing, classifying and retrieving information -- portable filing-cabinets, if you like -- not just for scribbling notes at random. So I'm not sure the analogy with blogging is particularly apt, though it's certainly appealing.
posted by verstegan at 2:46 PM on November 19, 2005

Don't know how I missed this post - saw a reference to it at The Little Professor - but it's great, thanks very much monju_bosatsu.
posted by peacay at 3:11 AM on November 21, 2005

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