The reason the web works as wonderfully as it does is because the medium leads us, sometimes against our will, into common places, not glass boxes. (Steven Berlin Johnson)
People keep comparing blogs to online journals, but, as a bonafide medievalist, I can tell you they are more like common place books […] Typically these books were compilations of brief passages, often with commentary, ordered topically or thematically—in short they were collections of commonplaces—or, for those with the Greek tongue, koinoi topoi, or loci communes, in the Latin. (Lisa Spangenberg)
the active role of the reader in the distribution process
The commonplace book was the bound volume in which aristocratic readers of the Renaissance would copy out their favourite poems from manuscript. It provides another useful model for understanding both the positive and negative aspects of the world of electronic texts in which hypertext exists. On the positive side, the ‘interactive’ nature of the commonplace book, the practice of copying out favourite passages to be added to a personal anthology (an anthology which in a sense constitutes a new work on to its own), emphasizes the active role of the reader in the distribution process. One of the benefits of hypertext is that it too may be added to, modified and then re-distributed so that several parallel versions of the same “original” text might be in circulation at any one time. (Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar)
assembling a personalized encyclopedia
In its most customary form, ‘commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing.
The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association. (Steven Berlin Johnson)
But all of this magic was predicated on one thing: that the words could be copied, re-arranged, put to surprising new uses in surprising new contexts. By stitching together passages written by multiple authors, without their explicit permission or consultation, some new awareness could take shape.
Since the heyday of the commonplace book, there have been a few isolated attempts to turn these textual remixes into a finished product, into a standalone work of collage. The most famous is probably Jefferson’s bible, his controversial ‘remix’ of the New Testament. There’s also Walter Benjamin’s unfinished, and ultimately unpublishable Passagenwerk, or Arcades Project, his rumination on the early shopping malls of Paris built out of photos, quotes, and aphoristic musings. Just this year, David Shields published a book, Reality Hunger, built out of quotes from a wide variety of sources. (Steven Berlin Johnson)
this tangled mix of writing and reading
Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, ‘methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang’ and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one. (Ryan Holiday)
a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation
A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories:’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his. (Jonathan Swift)
Topical heads were ubiquitous in early modern literary circles. They were usually words or very short phrases which, first, were selected for their ability to represent a theme addressed in a block of text and which, second, were placed in the white space above, beside or at the start of the block in a manner that made the unit easier to find and remember. Taken as whole, the head and the block, often called a ‘commonplace’, comprised the content of commonplace books (adversaria) that were organized thematically. Although the commonplace tradition was refined by early modern thinkers such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Petrus Ramus, the literary techniques used to organize it were extensions of the composition and memory instructions given in oratorical texts written by classical authors such as Cicero and Quintilian. By the end of the century, topical logic, or commonplacing, had become an influential method by which authors selected and arranged heads. It was ‘logical’ in the sense that it was guided by principles and perceptions unique to individual authors based on their intellectual context and training. In contrast to relatively fixed early modern forms of deductive logic, and sometimes inductive logic, topical logic was more flexible and effectively ‘a product of rule-of-thumb pedagogical adjustments rather than of abstract reason’. M.D. Eddy