Commonplace Weeds

Once upon a time, children, before the internet put us in the position to drown in information at high speeds and with a great and terrible efficiency, we used to write stuff down. In fact, we often did so (horrors!) by hand, without the benefit of the printing press or the keyboard or a dictation machine. We put instrument to surface and made that scribbly stuff happen. We preserved, shared, and organized information in ways suitable to this slower and more physically personal form, and doing so went hand in hand with how we thought about and interacted with the world.

Consider, for example, the practice of keeping a commonplace book. This is a tool that can be used to serve much the same basic function as a collection of bookmarks in a browser, or a collection of content maintained, annotated, and organized using a reference manager like Zotero or its many cousins. For those of us who find the act of physically writing things down in order to remember them and think about them attractive, a commonplace book can be an occasion for reflection as well as recollection; while it may not be as easily searchable or shareable as a thoughtfully annotated online collection of the same content, it has the advantage, in it slowness, of requiring sustained care and attention in order to work. These ever-growing texts require organization, for example, so that their users can return to information placed in them and make sense of the connections among those items.

The commonplace book indexing scheme developed by philosopher John Locke, which cleverly organized content by appropriately indicative headers indexed by their first letter and first vowel (screenshot of content available at the Internet Archive). For more information about Locke’s system in particular and commonplace books in general, see this lovely article at the Public Domain Review.

Such books, back when they were a more usual occurrence, typically included quotations and notes on material their author-collectors had read or heard; instead of hitting the ol’ Googs for that clever quip, you wrote it down when you encountered it and came back to your book for it later. Contemporary journaling practice isn’t so different from this, really, although a commonplace book doesn’t traditionally take on the diary activities that journaling requires; its original function is for collecting and keeping material to use later (often, per Locke, for rhetorical purposes), rather than writing out one’s thoughts about that information or about oneself.

The commonplace book — uniquely collected and arranged by its author, a work in itself of rhetorical preparation — is also quite different from the published assemblages of famous quotations, anecdotes, or toasts that have often formed the backbone of reference collections for speech preparation (and, lately, personal inspiration). Consider, for example, this little gem that (if I have my way) is probably going to leave my current employer’s collection at the end of our big reference weeding project this summer:

“Gems of brevity, wisdom, and outrageous wit.” A tall order for one little book to fill!

Unlike a commonplace book, in which the content is selected and curated by the book’s creator for that person’s own use and according to that person’s own needs, interests, reading choices, etc., books like this are intended (as the back cover copy tells us with breathless enthusiasm) as a combination “idea mine” and inspirational problem-solving resource. Where exploring one’s own commonplace book is (or can be) a marvelously personal process of introspection, texts like Peter’s Quotations feel a bit like reading someone else’s diary after all of the good bits have been redacted. The often informative and thought-provoking exercise of collecting and organizing material has already been done by someone else, and that someone else (probably prompted by a careful editor) has almost certainly tried to find some scheme for presenting generically appealing material in a generically appealing (and therefore unchallenging) way. This is dumbed-down reflection, sold as a cure-all. “Organized alphabetically by subject” and “cross-referenced by related categories”, Peter’s Quotations leaves little room for the innovation and continuous drawing of connections that grows organically and freely in a commonplace book built along Locke’s recommended lines.

Of course, among the most egregious of Peter’s sins is the book’s complete failure to source its included material in a way that will actually draw its reader to the original authors of those quotations the reader might find provocative or inspiring or useful. It denudes its content of context so completely as to make any “wisdom” present all the emptier. Its thoughtfully clear selection and organization trap the reader in a sort of anodyne garden of well-pruned prose, notwithstanding its empty promise of “outrageous wit.”

I leave the relation between Peter’s Quotations and the Peter Principle (and/or the Dunning-Kruger effect) as an exercise for the reader.


About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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