The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

From My Commonplace Book

The first in a series of very miscellaneous ideas and excerpts


For the last 30 years or so, I've kept a kind of "Commonplace Book"**—a collection of writings, anything from a sentence or two to a couple of paragraphs, that I had come across and found particularly well-constructed, or expressing some particularly interesting or profound idea in a special way, which I copied out and stored in a series of notebooks.

** The term "Commonplace Book" is quite ancient, and comes from the Latin locus communis, or "common knowledge." Aristotle and Cicero both discussed the practice of collecting and organizing sententiae, or "wise sayings" or quotations from philosophers, poets, dramatists, and the like, and the list of great writers and thinkers over the years who have assiduously kept their own Commonplace books is impressive, including e.g. John Milton, John Locke (who went as far as publishing a guide to the practice, entitled "A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books), Thomas Jefferson, Erasmus and Charles Darwin, Emerson, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Hardy, . . .

Somewhat to my surprise, it turned out to be very helpful for my own writing; the practice of simply copying out well-written passages, like the practice of memorizing texts, forces one to dig a little deeper into, and to think a little bit harder about, exactly what the author is doing and why the passage works as well as it does.

I have well over 500 entries in my book, and, skimming them over recently, I found a great deal of interesting stuff in there that I think would be fun to share. So over the next few months I'll pull something out and post it every few days, perhaps with a (brief) commentary on context, or on what I found particularly alluring about the excerpt. I think—or at least I hope—that some of you will find it interesting and illuminating.


This seems like a good place to start:

The wonderful Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, was, from 1968 to 1981, the (anonymous author) of the Literary Mailbox column in the Polish journal Literary Life. It was a kind of "Dear Abby" advice column for aspiring poets and novelists, in which she would answer readers' questions about writing or, more frequently, comment on excerpts that they had submitted. A bunch of her more trenchant (and often hilarious) responses are collected in How to Start Writing (and When to Stop).  I think this is my favorite:

To the Author of 'The Pianist's World':

We advise you—for a few months at least—to read only the great humorists. You won't be wasting time: such activity provides rest and recreation for a mind worn down by its own lyricism. It also demonstrates, incidentally, the folly of excessive self-importance. After this course of treatment, you will see your poems differently. The mood of 'The Pianist's World' will strike you as contrived, and the metaphor "life licks us with a tongue of contrasts" will no longer fill you with writerly pride.

Best regards.