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What were commonplace books? Simon O'Hagan

Blog | By Simon O'Hagan | Oct 18, 2022

A mid-17th-century commonplace book

Commonplace books go back centuries, and can't be beaten as an insight into the mind of a writer. By Simon O'Hagan

Commonplace books were miscellanies in which a writer would gather passages of literature that had caught their eye.

They were not quite diaries, journals or anthologies in any themed sense; more a kind of literary playlist reflecting the writer’s enthusiasms and preoccupations – and therefore quite random.

To that extent, in their bite-size appeal, commonplace books were way ahead of their time. To scroll through Twitter is to experience something of the commonplace book.

Commonplace books go back centuries. In the 17th century, John Milton kept one, published in 1953 as part of an edition of his complete prose works. Coleridge’s Marginalia falls into the category of commonplace books.

Later writers associated with commonplace books include Samuel Butler, Arnold Bennett and Franz Kafka. Other Men’s Flowers, an anthology of poems selected by Lord Wavell, was a hit in 1944.

Quite a few people to whom I’ve mentioned commonplace books have looked blank. Others have immediately said, ‘Oh, you mean like John Julius Norwich?’ – a reference to the historian’s series A Christmas Cracker: Being a Commonplace Selection, which started off as something he distributed only to friends.

A Christmas Cracker was a compilation of favourite things that J J N had come across during the year. A 50th-anniversary edition appeared in 2019 (a year after his death, aged 88), with an introduction by Julian Fellowes.

One of the most distinguished commonplace books is W H Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, published in 1970, three years before his death. I have a treasured first edition. Auden was a voracious reader of prose and poetry that was by no means all highbrow. He describes the compilation as ‘a sort of autobiography’. And as Auden never wrote an autobiography, A Certain World – which ranges from Goethe to Ogden Nash, via Chekhov, Elizabeth David, Virginia Woolf and countless other writers – is the nearest thing we have.

One friend who went up to Cambridge in the 1980s told me her tutor instructed her ‘always to keep a commonplace book’, but I wonder if such advice is still handed out today. Where are the commonplace books of 2022?

Perhaps their purpose is served by the plethora of information that comes at us digitally on a daily basis. But as an insight into the mind of a writer, I’m not sure they can be beaten. Any publishers out there interested in reviving the idea?