Thursday, February 12, 2015
Of the Commonplace
Not too long ago, I happened upon a notebook I kept when I was a young married wife. It was tremendously fascinating to me. And although it had lists of homekeeping things such as cheeses to try, it also said a lot about its author. I had great fun pouring over a list of items to bring on a Junior League retreat in 1982 to a remote farmhouse: good pens, notepaper, knitting, and a Topsy Tail - that odd ponytail maker that was so popular then.
A few years ago, my library had a small exhibition of commonplace books, those notebooks filled with poems, songs, lists, and sketches that people often kept in the 19th century. They were captivating to me as I thought about all the hours that went into maintaining such notebooks. I can certainly see why they are so valuable today as they capture lives lived so well with their array of entries. Some reminded me of the notebooks kept by Leonardo Da Vinci which are famous for his drawings of the human body. I always keep a small "Da Vinci" notebook in my handbag to jot down thoughts or reminders of things that I suddenly realized I forgot. My notebook is most likely not very interesting with its notations to remember to pick up a wool skirt at the dry cleaner or a box of dishwasher soap.
Yesterday as I waited for my mother to finish her grocery shopping, I noticed an older bearded gent scribbling away in a composition notebook in the store's café. His pages were filled with lists, prose, drawings, and business cards attached with staples. It became almost unbearable and finally I crept up to him, apologizing for the interruption but asking what his notebook was for. He told me it was filled with all the things his brain forgets: things to buy for the properties he owns, lists of items for his boat, examples of tools that may work for a certain project, etc. He turned a few pages for me and I could see that this Da Vinci was filled with a man's life. I asked if he knew he was creating a commonplace book and that if discovered, say 300 years hence, may be of real interest to someone. He seemed amazed at the possibility and then told me that he was a former college professor and had kept several such diaries over the years. Soon I was showing him the small notebook I carry in my purse and we laughed over the fact that literary people often do keep journals and notebooks. I then found myself asking him to enter his name on one of my notebook's pages. He did and underneath, he wrote "The man of the commonplace book". Our exchange was lovely and filled with humanity and humor. We bade each other goodbye and best wishes.
Currently I am reading A Lady of Fashion; Barbara Johnson's Album of Styles and Fabrics which is a fashion diary that was kept by an unmarried English woman who lived in the 18th century. All her entries are about her clothes: where the cloth was bought, yardage, how much it cost, the seamstress' name, and where the dress was worn. Beside each entry is a scrap of fabric from the garment. The swatches come to life on the page in all their glorious colors and prints. But Miss Johnson also included clippings of fashion plates from the lady's magazines of her time. Although she lived far from London, she had a passion for clothes and must have brought true flair and glamour to her rural village. I wouldn't call Miss Johnson's album a true commonplace book but it certainly offers a birds eye view into an obscure life that I would never have known.
Page from Barbara Johnson's Album
I set about filling my notebooks with odd facts, recollections, and all sorts of other things, including the most trivial stuff. Mostly I concentrated on things and people that I found charming and worthwhile, but my notes are also full of poems and observations on trees and plants, birds and insects. I am sure that when people see my book they will say, ‘It’s even worse than expected — now you can really tell what she is like.
— Sei Shonagon, The Pillow Book