“Make your own Bible [commonplace book]. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in your reading have been like the blast of triumph out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Keep your own “Author Commonplace Book” or have one of your primary characters keep one.
Commonplace books are the opposite of what they seem. There is nothing trite or ordinary about them. A commonplace book is, at its root, a repository of ideas that traces its roots to Aristotle. They were quite popular in the early twentieth century and were used by both scholars and ordinary folk to find a way to remember what they didn’t want to forget. They wanted to be able to recall all things important. Kenneth Remain was one of those folk, and what better way to learn about a character than to have him share the words he lives by – or, at least, attempts to live by.
This excerpt from The Remains of the Corps explains how Kenneth felt about his use of a commonplace book:
The ritual of immersing himself in his literary commonplace book was like taking a deep breath of fresh air on a brisk spring morning. The galleried entries, individually and as a composite, served, among other things, as his written memory, his moral compass, his character trait checklist, and his lifeline to normalcy. While other people collected coins, stamps, bottles, and such, he amassed a treasure trove of resonant words — in silken phrases, in silver sentences, in lustrous expressions, in lyrics of gold, in luminous quotations, and in quicksilvery passages masterfully constructed — and re-examined them time and again. Gleaning, preserving, and annotating in a single, accessible place, snippets of memorable quality had become an essential and transformative component of his reading adventures. He had maintained and cherished his compendiums since freshman year in high school and his distinctly personal fund of notable knowledge had grown to many volumes. So attached was he to his commonplace book — he didn’t know why they called it that as its content was anything but and keepers of commonplace books, such as Aristotle, Erasmus, and Jefferson were hardly commonplace figures — that before leaving for the Marines, he had distilled years of collected materials to one compact volume that included those entries he thought would be most relevant to the life he was to lead in the Marines. They would serve as a source of strength to draw upon, a barrier to weakness, an antidote to anxiety, a pleasurable oasis of respite to preserve sanity, and a ready stock of practical insight, wisdom, and understanding to apply to circumstances he hadn’t confronted before. The contents were much like an orchestra playing his favorite songs. The poetry was a soothing stringed instrument. The quotations were bugle blasts — calls to action. The humor was a playful fiddle. The principles evoked by the literary passages, which he had made his own, were the drumbeats to which he marched. He sometimes, especially when he descended into a brown study, would run his fingers over the words as he revisited them, and he swore that the inspiration he drew from those moments was palpable.
The superior man acquaints himself with many sayings of antiquity and many deeds of the past, in order to strengthen his character thereby.
— John Milton (what I want to be)
All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.
— from “Moby Dick,” Melville (on mortality, impending death, and the suddenness of life)
He became not a man but a member. He felt that something of which he was a part — a regiment, an army, a cause, or a country — was in a crisis. He was welded into a common personality which was dominated by a single desire.
— from “Red Badge of Courage,” Narrator about Henry (on the importance of selflessness to the unit and to the individual)
For he that does good, having the unlimited power to do evil, deserves praise not only for the good which he performs, but for the evil which he forbears.
— from “Ivanhoe,” The Black Knight (a truly chivalrous man must have a capacity for mercy — even on his enemies)