So, would you care to step back through the pages of history with me for a bit? I wish to take you back to an age when pens and paper (or should that be quills and parchment?) were still a big deal to many in the world… A romantic age, a world in which gentleman were such and duels were fought… I want to take you to late 19th century London… Imagine the cobbled streets, gas lamps, horse-draw carriages… Now, imagine us walking together up a small street before we stop in front of a suite of apartments. The address? Why, 221B Baker Street of course, my dear friend.
Mists of time and all that jazz…
I knock on the door, and our inquiry is quickly answered by the kind, congenial landlady, a Mrs. Hudson by name. She directs us upstairs, first door on the left, and we quickly ascend.
“I hope you counted the steps as we came up, my friend often likes to test his guests with that bit of trivia upon their arrival.” I chuckle as I remember back to my own first visit. A faint whisper of violin music tickles our ears as we walk through the hallway. Finally arriving at the rooms we were directed to, I rap twice on the door. A muffled bark of “Enter!” greets my ears as the music abruptly ends.
We are greeted by a tall, gaunt man holding a violin and bow in his hands. He quickly lays them upon a nearby table before turning his piercing gaze toward his guests. His hawk-like nose and square jaw set a striking figure as he studied us momentarily before clapping his hands together startlingly loud in the moment of silence.
“Ah, yes, here you are! It’s not often that I receive guests anymore, ever since Watson moved into his new lodgings with his wife and relocated his practice and since that I have not been doing much consulting work as of late! Do come, come in, make yourself at home, if you can find someplace to seat yourself!”
He gestured to the apartment around him, noting the lack of suitable places to sit due to the hug piles of old newspapers, outdated correspondence, and other bits of memorabilia. An experiment still lie smoking on the table nearby, many of the beakers in disarray, and the top of the desk could not be seen the mass of paper on its surface.
“Oh, I do apologize,” he said, quickly clearing the papers off of the sofa and a chair and seeming to sort them into some of the many piles around the room, “I sometimes forget that without Watson here, everything is so disorganized in an organized manner. He was the neat one when it came to the room, you understand… Please, help yourself to a cigarette or some pipe tobacco,” he added, almost as an afterthought, pointing offhandedly to the box and slipper on the mantle.
“I can tell by your lack of haste that you have no new case for me, Mr. Davis?” he shot a hopeful query in my direction, a spark of interest in his eyes.
“Unfortunately not, Holmes… I actually brought my friend here because of his interest in your commonplace books.”
“You mean my records?”
“One and the same.”
At the mention of his books, his eyes lit up once again and turned, sweeping his arms out and gesturing grandly to a bookshelf full of notebooks of all shapes and forms. Some were bound leather books of the finest quality while others were mere reporters pads, but all of them were in alphabetical order and had obviously been well looked after.
“Ah, my crowning achievement… Truly, I have written several great works, perhaps you have… Oh, nevermind,” he intoned as he saw us gazing earnestly at the bookshelf and it’s contents. “Browse all you like, but take care that everything is returned to its proper place…” With this last exchange, he walked back over to the table, his movements reminding one of a living scarecrow more than anything else, and picking up the violin and bow once more, began to play…
Back to the future…
Well, sorry to waste your time, but I felt like a bit of short fiction was sort of appropriate to begin this article. The reason I chose to incorporate Holmes into my post is that it was one of the first times I had ever heard mention of a commonplace book. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle including in his works the sentences: “When our visitor was silent Holmes stretched out his hand and took down letter “S” of his commonplace book. For once he dug in vain into that mine of varied information.”
The moment those words registered in my brain, the search was on! Thankfully, due to the modern convenience we call the internet, my search was much easier and faster than some of Holmes’ clue-finding endeavours. Wikipedia has the following to say about commonplace books:
“Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books…
Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.”
(Read the whole article here)
“So,” you say “We’re talking about the predecessor to the scrapbook?” In a way, yes, in others, no… While scrapbooks are most often created to remember times, trips, and other events in life that are important, the commonplace book was for anything and everything. Some may have used it as a journal, others a recipe book, others a datebook, and still others, such as Sherlock Holmes, as their own personal encyclopedia of common and esoteric knowledge.
In this day and age, I am seeing more and more of a trend toward commonplacing, although many consider it journalling. I see more and more people not only keeping a journal, but also posting/glueing pictures, magazine or newspaper articles, or even fortune cookie fortunes into their pages. People are commonplacing and they don’t even know it!
Now, do all commonplaces have to be useful? No! It can be as useful or as fun as you want it to be. Do you keep a commonplace book/journal? How about sharing some photos or comment on your experiences below? ^_^