Extraordinary Commonplaces

Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks

edited by J.A. Gere, edited by John Sparrow
Oxford University Press

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite. Yet it still survives in places. The best example of a twentieth-century commonplace book is Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks, published in 1981. Perhaps it is the last of the line, for it has fallen out of print and seems to have been forgotten, except in some senior common rooms of British universities. But it deserves to be rescued from oblivion, because it is a great read, especially for anyone interested in reading itself as a way of making sense of the world.

Educated at Eton and Oxford, Madan survived injury in World War I but came down with meningitis in 1925 and spent the rest of his life in retirement, living off a private income and observing the human comedy from the clubs of London and the high tables of Oxford. When he recorded his observations, he adhered to the Erasmian principle of distilling things down to their essence and entering them in notebooks, as if he were storing rare wine to be served for dégustation in future conversations. As Erasmus advised, Madan devised his own set of rubrics for classifying his material. But the rubrics corresponded to the world of a man about town in the 1920s and 1930s rather than a Christian humanist from the sixteenth century. “Viniana,” for example, was devoted to wine itself, one of Madan’s three main passions, the others being old silver and rare books:

Queen Victoria “strengthening” claret with whisky.

—Gladstone, letter to Mrs. Gladstone, 1864

I see you have been brought …

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