Sunday 28 October 2012

Books of Stuff, by K. M. Grant

Social networking is here to stay.  Yet neither blogs nor tweets can take the place of the old-fashioned commonplace book on whose pages the owner jotted down thoughts, observations and quotations that happened, at a particular moment, to seem important or interesting.  We still scribble down thoughts, observations and quotations:  they're the lifeblood of Facebook and Twitter.  But it's not the same.  For a start, electronic jottings are all typed, and one of the wonders of the real commonplace book was the handwriting, usually beautifully neat to begin with, then turning more and more scribbly as the entries proliferated amid cigar ash and spilled coffee.    This is George Lyttleton's handwriting, taken from his 'large, blue, hardback' commonplace book.

George Lyttleton's handwriting
Some people think that commonplace books are the same as scrap books:  I don't agree.  To me, scrapbooks are blank books into which you stuff things:  recipes torn from newspapers, cards from people you once knew, old letters not important enough to go into the special old letter box, old leaves picked up somewhere or other, old invitations, old almost anything flat and papery.  The blank leaves of a scrapbook are seldom written on:  they just serve as a binding for everything else.

Commonplace books are not bundles of stuff.  They bear the actual imprint of the owner.  And they're mis-named.  As George Lyttleton asked of his friend Rupert Hart-Davis, 'why is it called a commonplace book when practically nothing in it is commonplace?' (GWL, 2002).   In his own commonplace book, he noted the breeding habits of rabbits (p.29) and a Japanese student's interpretation of the instruction 'stand on your own feet' as 'I must float on my own bladder' (p.58).   Does anybody out there still keep a commonplace book?  I do hope so.

Another type of book long out of fashion is the visitors' book.  Our visitors' book is, after the husband, children, dogs and budgie (the budgie? who am I kidding) the thing I'd want to rescue from a fire.   My husband and I have kept it from the day we were married.  Nobody has to write a remark - I hate doing that myself - only a signature from each person - none of this signing for the whole family - and the dates of visitors' arrival and departure.  Apart from being a highly effective weapon when arguing over the last time we saw so and so, our book follows the trajectory of our lives through the signing of names:  my late parents-in-law and mother;  my father; nieces and nephews from faltering splodge to elegant scrawl; friends from afar; whole pages for christenings, weddings, funerals.  We also have three memorable pages from three memorable visits, filled with the outpourings of Russian pianist Alexander Kobrin. He came, alone, aged 17, to stay for the Scottish Piano Competition.  It was his first adult victory (he was the youngest competitor), and he went on to win a string of other competitions, culminating in the Van Cliburn.  I'm glad he ignored the 'name only' rule.  His pages brim with him.

Alexander Kobrin's entry in our visitors book

And what opportunities for raising danders visitors' books supply!  The rule in our house (as in my parents') has always been that once you marry, if you return to the parental home, you sign the visitors' book.  Our older daughter, married last year, didn't turn a hair.  Friends turned several hairs on her behalf.  'Bloody hell, Katie!  She has to sign to visitors' book in her own home?  That's awful!'  My rather weak protestation that she now has her own home did not placate.  In some eyes, I'm now an Officially Awful Mother.

People who stayed for Eliza's 21st
Anyhow, in our love-affair with electronic media, let's not forget the books in which we scribble.   Facebook and Twitter are all very well, but who wants their thoughts, observations or quotations archived in some impersonal whirring computer barn across the Atlantic rather than lodged in a bookcase, or even stuffed in a drawer?   And if you don't want to forget your visitors, get them signing.  We keep our visitors' book by the front door. If nothing else, it provides something amusing, moving and occasionally perplexing (who WERE those people?) to flick through whilst waiting for a taxi.

Lyttleton, G. (2002) The Commonplace Book of George Lyttleton, York, Stone Trough Books


Sue Bursztynski said...

The closest thing I had was a diary, but it was written in an exercise book or blank book, so I could write anything or draw. I went back once to see what I had to say on the day of the moon landing and was surprised o find I hadn't said anything!

I have started to do on my blog what I used to do in the diaries, except everyone can read it.

JO said...

I think blogs, FB, the whole social media stuff - is totally different from the notebook, shoved in the bag whenever I go out or on the side in the kitchen at home, stained, thumbed, and full of ideas, quotations, reminders - the teasers that get us through the day. I don't want to share everything that makes me smile, but I do want to make a note of it.

My brother has kept a visitor's book for years - we have family in Australia, so they have stayed, and their friends have stayed, and then the children's friends have stayed - it's a wonderful reminder of his generosity, and I suspect he'll sit by the fire with it when he's old and reminisce about his cousin Bruce and Uncle Peter!

Jane Borodale said...

Great post. Commonplace books - fantastic hodgepodge of primary source material. I don't think I could have written The Knot without seeing the commonplace book of Henry Lyte's son... nearest thing to being a fly on the wall, maybe.

adele said...

Lovely post! The subject of HANDWRITING is back in fashion....Philip Hensher has just brought out a book about it.