I think of commonplace books, my own and those assembled by others, as works of reference like dictionaries and encyclopedias. The contents may be less rigorously collected and organized, but what unifies them is the writer’s sensibility, what attracts and repels him, his enthusiasms and detestations. Though filled with the words of others, a commonplace book is pure oblique autobiography. Take My Commonplace Book by J.T. (James Thompson) Hackett, first published in 1919 in Great Britain. My library has the third edition from 1921, with the book plate of Edgar Odell Lovett, founding president of Rice University, pasted in the front. A small blue label at the back indicates Lovett bought the book from Brentano’s in New York City.
Hackett was an Australian about whom I know little. In his preface, he says most of the collecting for his book was done between 1874 and 1886, and the contents have a definite Victorian bent. The authors most often represented are Browning, George Eliot and Tennyson, followed by Wordsworth and Swinburne. In his preface, Hackett insists his book “is not an anthology. A commonplace book is usually a collection of reminders made by a young man who cannot afford an extensive library. There is no system in such a collection.” And it’s true: the organization is entirely random. There are no chapters and the subject index is sometimes vague or maddeningly specific: “Good never Lost” and “Game of Chance Clergy Flavour.”
Commonplace books make for good idle reading: read a passage, weigh it, move on. They are undemanding, and the good ones can hook you. Here are the contents of Page 287, beginning with a passage from Chap. 21, “Going Abroad,” from Moby-Dick:
“In his broken fashion Queequeg gave me to understand that, in his land, owing to the absence of settees and sofas of all sorts, the king, chiefs, and great people generally were in the custom of fattening some of the lower orders for ottomans; and to furnish a house comfortably in that respect, you had only to buy up eight or ten lazy fellows, and lay them round in the piers and alcoves.”
The Melville Revival was only just starting when Hackett published his book, suggesting he was a somewhat adventuresome reader. The choice of excerpt also suggests he had a sense of humor and was attuned to the comic strain in Ishmael’s voice. Next comes a verse from George MacDonald’s 1863 novel David Elginbrod:
“Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:
Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord God;
As I wad do, were I Lord God,
And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.”
Hackett identifies the next entry only as having been uttered by Heine, but the original French is usually described as the poet’s final words:
“Dieu me pardonnera; c’est son métier.
(God will pardon me. That is His business.)”
Finally, Hackett includes an excerpt from “A Scottish Eclogue” by Robert Buchanan (1841-1901):
“O LORD, it broke my heart to see his pain!
I thought—I dared to think—if I were GOD,
Poor Caird should never gang so dark a road,
And thought—ay, dared to think, the LORD forgi’e!—
To think the LORD was crueller than me;
Forgetting GOD is just, and knoweth best
What folk should burn in fire, what folk be blest.”
Again, Hackett reveals a taste for the comic. As an addendum, let me contribute the most recent entry in my commonplace book. This is from Pages from the Goncourt Journal (trans. Robert Baldick, Oxford University Press, 1962). The date is April 14, 1874. Edmond de Goncourt’s report suggests the elevated nature of literary gatherings in nineteenth-century Paris:
“Dinner at the Café Riche with Flaubert, Zola, Turgenev, and Alphonse Daudet. A dinner of men of talent who have a high opinion of each other’s work, and one which we hope to make a monthly occasion in the winters to come.
“We began with a long discussion on the special aptitudes of writers suffering from constipation and diarrhoea; and we went on to talk about the mechanics of the French language.”