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32-commonplace Rev Thos Austen 1770

Addressing the Honors College at Houston Baptist University, The Imaginative Conservative founder Winston Elliott III delivered a gentle, wry and wide-ranging address on how to gather up wisdom. He warns students of getting bogged down by chasing grades and deadlines, thus missing ideas the value of which are far greater and lifelong.

A partial solution may be to resurrect the late, lamented Commonplace Book.

Unlike keeping a scrapbook with wedding invitations, newspaper clippings and happy-snaps of your nieces, a commonplace book is a scrapbook of ideas, and they have been kept and filled since Classical times. It is, in a sense, the lazy man’s diary written only when inspiration strikes.

Renaissance Italy virtually invented the modern book, and their Zibaldone (or hodge-podge books) became fashionable repositories for an idea culled from a tome or a sermon, a verse of poetry or a witticism heard over supper. By the Seventeenth Century, English students were compelled to keep them, knowing that writing down a valuable quote made it easier to remember.

Bacon, Milton and Locke kept them. George Washington filled many, Tom Jefferson too, all available in the Library of Congress.  Emerson and Thoreau used them extensively, so did Mark Twain. H. P. Lovecraft published one and in Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” both Klaus Baudelaire and the Quagmire triplets keep commonplace books.

A cheap, spiral-bound notebook will suffice if either you are skint or else the sort of person who puts his houseguests in a pup-tent. But since it is going to be a home for your very best intellectual friends, a hand-sewn, leather-bound notebook lasts for centuries, and you might want to splash out on a fountain pen to make characterful scribbles worthy of the material.

At negligible cost and just a little effort, Saint Augustine and the Founding Fathers, Old Possum and Russell Kirk and Professor Tolkien, and moderns such as Brad Birzer and others can all reside together in suitably splendid accommodation on your coffee-table, ready to delight and provoke with great ideas both you and your great-grandchildren.

And nevermore will you do that forgetful, embarrassing, Bertie Wooster thing: “That chappie says what glory does, Jeeves, like water rippling don’t you know.”

“’Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself, Till by broad spreading it disperses to naught’? It was the Swan of Avon, I believe, Sir.”

“Spot on, Jeeves, spot on as usual.”

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. I've started so many of these, and combined them with a type of visual diary of sorts with newspaper clippings, etc. It is great fun to put together and look through again!

  2. Hmmmm…I guess I’ve kept a Commonplace Book for maybe 30 years. I started collecting quotes from people I was impressed with – and they were all over the house till I decided to record them all in a notebook. I’m now on my (I guess) 3d notebook filled with excellent thoughts from a wide variety of people & occasions. I have expanded out into photos, also – of RR, Maggie and JPII, of Marilyn Monroe curtsying to Queen Elizabeth….. Norman Borlaug, Charles I on horseback, soldiers at the ready exiting a helicopter, Duke Ellington with Billy Strayhorn, Father Jerzy Popieluseko, later martyred, hearing confessions during the Gdansk shipyard strike….. Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Adolf Hitler….NYC on 9/11…..Don Alejo Garza, who sent his family away and died in battle with Mexican drug cartel bandidos… (sigh!)

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