Commonplaces in all sorts of places

Not long ago, having realized that none of the other online to-read list options I’d been trying were really working out, I joined Goodreads. I like the ease of adding a book to one’s to-read or currently-reading shelves; I like the tagging; I like being able to specify what page I’m on; and I like reading other people’s reviews, and writing reviews of my own.

What I wasn’t expecting to find was the “Quotes” feature. One can, if one likes, search for quotations from one’s favorite authors, save quotations to a list of personal favorites, add in quotations that nobody else has added yet, and give them descriptive tags. My first thought, when I saw all this, was that the commonplace book phenomenon had popped up in another place I hadn’t been looking for it.

A lot of the most popular quotations on Goodreads are of the banal sort that one sees on greeting cards and refrigerator magnets (if I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen that “Dance like no one is watching” bit, I could retire tomorrow), but people have used the Quotes feature to collect all kinds of quotations, some of them wonderful. When I found it, I promptly spent several hours going through old notebooks and adding favorite snippets of prose and poetry to my Goodreads list. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

It makes me just a little bit happier when I see a passage I typed in getting favorited by other readers, like I’ve introduced someone to something splendid they maybe hadn’t seen before. Which, come to think of it, is perhaps how the compilers of the 19th-century commonplace books I’ve been looking at felt when they shared their extracts with friends and family members. Certainly the combination of “familiar quotations” and idiosyncratic personal tastes is something that’s become very familiar to me as I look at 200-year-old collections of quotations.

And because I can’t resist, here are a few extracts from my own Goodreads commonplace book:


Mr Earbrass was virtually asleep when several lines of verse passed through his mind and left it hopelessly awake. Here was the perfect epigraph for TUH:

A horrid ?monster has been [something] delay’d
By your/their indiff’rence in the dank brown shade
Below the garden…

His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago. When he does find them, it will be a great nuisance if no clue is given to their authorship.

—Edward Gorey, The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel


“It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself — We fainted alternately on a sofa.” —Jane Austen, Love and Freindship


So one can lose a good idea
by not writing it down, yet by losing it one can have it: it nourishes other asides
it knows nothing of, would not recognize itself in, yet when the negotiations
are terminated, speaks in the acts of that progenitor, and does
recognize itself, is grateful for not having done so earlier.

—John Ashbery, Flow Chart


Rosencrantz: Shouldn’t we be doing something—constructive?
Guildenstern: What did you have in mind? … A short, blunt human pyramid…?

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead


“Their relationship consisted / In discussing if it existed.”  —Thom Gunn, “Jamesian”

[This last one gets my personal vote for Best. Epigram. EVER.]

6 Responses to “Commonplaces in all sorts of places”

  1. KF says:

    I saw a very cool demo at the Social Computing Symposium this week of a project called Findings that’s a sort of social commonplace book — like Delicious for quotations. It’s in closed beta right now, but I think it’s going to be seriously nifty once it’s publicly available…

  2. dale says:

    Ooh, I’m happy to say I’ve had no relationships like that for a very long time!

  3. Songbird says:

    I adore the Austen quotation. I’m on Goodreads but have ignored its possibilities until earlier today.

  4. Amanda says:

    Kathleen: ooh, Findings sounds fantastic. I’ll be sure to try it once it’s out of closed beta.
    Dale: I think you’re probably a great deal more sensible than I. Though hopefully I’ve outgrown my youthful tendency to assume that life always imitates a Henry James novel.
    Songbird: that’s perhaps my favorite line from Austen, with the possible exception of the sentence near the end of Northanger Abbey about the “telltale compression of pages” giving away the approaching happy ending.

  5. Paige Morgan says:

    Hmmm. My favorite Austen line is Mary Crawford on Rears and Vices in Mansfield Park.
    But I hadn’t realized that Goodreads had the quote section either — I shall have to explore.
    Amanda, have you thought about the slightly bizarre (or so it seems to me when I encounter it) commonplace-book-in-the-ether of the Kindle, where you can see any passage that has been highlighted by other readers?

  6. Amanda says:

    I’d forgotten all about the Rears and Vices line. Hee!
    I haven’t yet given in and bought a Kindle, but I remember Matt Kirschenbaum talked about that exact phenomenon, among other things, in his paper at the Why Books? conference I went to this fall. And I’m so glad you brought that up, because I’d been intending to mention it in this post and then forgot that I was going to. It rang all kinds of bells when I heard it.