I just finished reading The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future by Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard University Library. While there have been many changes to the "future" of books since its publication in 2009, this book details many of the legal issues surrounding the digitization of our largest library holdings as well as the preservation of books, the study of bibliography, and public access to resources.
What really grabbed my attention, though, was the chapter "The Mysteries of Reading," in which the author describes "commonplace books." In early modern Europe, commonplace books were as significant as they were unique to each individual author. Scrapbook-like journals, these books were created with snippets of information from whatever books one was reading. Favorite quotes, interesting facts, ideas, and beautiful passages, poems, proverbs, or prayers were transcribed. By copying such text, readers exhibited a more active form of reading in which writing things down, taking notes, and responding to a text was more important than the simple enjoyment of a book.
In fact, while reading this book, I found myself dog-earring certain pages with passages that I liked. And once I learned about commonplace books, I started thinking about blogs, or other forms of sharing ideas and information on social media, as modern-day commonplace books. The art of reading hasn't disappeared since early modern Europe; it has evolved, the same way our transition from "real" books to e-books has transformed our reading experience. But despite these changes, the reason I love books so much has not changed. Reading allows us to learn, to see the ideas of the author and to develop our own ideas, to engage in an internal dialogue about the challenges we face, how we respond to them, what we consider beautiful, and what makes us human.
The first passage that stood out to me is a simple one that shows a love of books in a physical sense:
It is important to get the feel of a book—the texture of its paper, the quality of its printing, the nature of its binding. Its physical aspects provide clues about its existence as an element in a social and economic system; and if it contains margin notes, it can reveal a great deal about its place in the intellectual life of its readers.
Books also give off special smells. According to a recent survey of French students, 43 percent consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books—so important that they resist buying odorless electronic books.
I'm guilty... the smell of a book is as important to me as flipping through its pages and absorbing its content. But that's not to say that I don't also enjoy reading on my Kindle, which offers wonderful convenience while traveling (I would be lugging around an entire library otherwise), allows me to look up words that I don't know, and lets me highlight my favorite passages to be stored electronically—something of an e-commonplace book in its own section on my Kindle.
A passage about the author of a commonplace book, William Drake, shows the value of keeping a commonplace book:
Drake understood reading as digestion, a process of extracting the essence from books and of incorporating them into himself. He favored bite-sized bits of text, which could be useful in their application to everyday life. For reading should not be aimed at erudition; it should help a man get ahead in the world, and its most helpful chunks came in the form of proverbs, fables, and even the mottoes written into emblem books.
Darnton concludes the chapter with this:
...we may pay closer attention to reading as an element in what used to be called the history of mentalities—that is, world views and ways of thinking. All the keepers of commonplace books, from Drake to Madan, read their way through life, picking up fragments of experience and fitting them into patterns. The underlying affinities that held those patterns together represented an attempt to get a grip on life, to make sense of it, not by elaborating theories but by imposing form on matter. Commonplacing was like quilting: it produced pictures, some more beautiful than others, but each of them interesting in its own way. They reveal patterns of culture: the segments that went into it, the stitching that connected them, the tears that pulled them apart, and the common cloth of which they were composed.
If we learn something of humanity through reading, then surely the books we read influence our experiences and how we relate to others and the world around us. While I certainly haven't jotted down notes or quotes from all of the books that I've read over the years, each has influenced me, if only in deciding what I'd like to read next—the shape or color of one scrap of fabric in a quilt determining which scrap of fabric will lie next to it.
Reading is a way to learn about other people, other cultures, other places, and other ideas (whether it is through fiction, non-fiction, poetry, or another form). It is a way to orient and situate ourselves in our own individual worlds as well as the entire world. I am more than happy to "read my way through life" even if it does create problems of storage and a small but somewhat dangerous addiction to used book stores. Active reading, and commonplacing in its traditional form or in some modern-day variant of its traditional form, can only make the experience of reading more fruitful and valuable.