Make your own Bible. Select and collect all
those words and sentences that in all your
reading have been to you like the blast of a
trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John, and Paul.
— RALPH WALDO EMERSON
For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book. It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.
I began keeping my commonplace book in the 1980s, when I was in high school. In the 1990s, when I was working as the arts editor for an alternative weekly newspaper in Vermont, I typed the whole thing into a long computer file. I’ve moved it from desktops to laptops and now onto my iPhone, too. Into it I’ve poured verbal delicacies, “the blast of a trumpet,” as Emerson put it, and bits of scavenged wisdom from my life as a reader. Yea, for I am an underliner, a destroyer of books, and maybe you are, too.
Commonplace books are not so uncommon. Virginia Woolf kept one. So did Samuel Johnson. W. H. Auden published his, as did the poet J. D. McClatchy. E. M. Forster’s was issued after his death. The novelist David Markson wrote terse and enveloping novels that resembled commonplace books; they were bird’s nests of facts threaded with the author’s own subtle interjections. For fans of the genre, many prize examples have come from lesser-known figures such as Geoffrey Madan and Samuel Rogers, both English, who issued commonplace books that are notably generous and witty and illuminating. These have become cult items. The literary critic Christopher Ricks said about Rogers that, although he may not have been a kind man, “he was very good at hearing what was said.”
In my commonplace book, for handy reference, I keep things in categories: “food,” “conversation,” “social class,” “travel,” “politics,” “cleanliness,” “war,” “money,” “clothing,” etc. I use it as an aide-mémoire, a kind of external hard drive. It helps me ward off what Christopher Hitchens, quoting a friend, called CRAFT (Can’t Remember a F— Thing) syndrome. I use my gleanings in my own writing. Like Montaigne, I quote others only “in order to better express myself.” Montaigne compared quoting well to arranging other people’s flowers. Sometimes, I sense, I quote too often in the reviews I write for The New York Times, swinging on quotations as if from vine to vine. It’s one of the curses of spending a lifetime as a word-eater, and of retaining a reliable memory.