Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Commonplace Books of Simon van Booy

New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Why we Need Love
Why we Fight
Why our Decisions don't Matter

Have you ever copied out an excerpt from a book you are reading, something too good to lose track of, something you know you are going to quote later or which makes you feel happy or intelligent just by reading it? I have. In fact, I've been following the age old tradition of compiling my own personal commonplace book for nearly twenty years now. Flipping through the excerpts I've collected reminds me of the brilliance and humour and wisdom I've encountered in my reading, and it also reminds me of the person I was when I found a particular quote meaningful. It is a startlingly effective method of time travel ;)

Simon van Booy, a marvellous writer in his own right, has collected three books of excerpts, done in a proper commonplace book method, by theme. The three books, all bound very similarly, are small enough to slip into a pocket and take a random dip into on your travels. Being Simon van Booy, the contents of these books are not always predictable or familiar; I found some authors and some pieces new to me that I want to explore further. The selected authors are an interesting mix; not limited to one era or one gender or one school of thought, the variety of the selections makes for a more illuminating reading experience.

What is the purpose of such books in an internet world in which we can google any topic + quotes and come up with a string of related pithy sayings? Well, these books contain longer selections, not just brief quotes, and are chosen by someone for whom they have significance and represent some of the best things he believes he has to share on the topic. Knowing that they have meaning to someone else, especially someone whose work I've read and find amazing, made these books intriguing for me. I read, pondered, agreed with some thoughts and disagreed with others, and thought that overall, these books made for a nice slow informative exploration of three different themes.

If you like bits of books excerpted and shared as if another reader is pointing them out to you saying, look here, this part is good, well then I think you will enjoy this set of three books which are easy to hold and easy to peruse.


  1. I started to do this when I was at College, but unfortunately didn't then keep it up. I wish I had. One of my favourite books in this genre is W H Auden's 'A Certain World: A Commonplace Book'. Do you know it?

  2. Annie - I love Auden, but haven't seen A Certain World. Thanks for sharing it, I am going to rush out and find a copy! :)

  3. I keep a commonplace book and I am always intrigued by the commonplace books of others. I will have to look out for these!

  4. Stefanie - I love reading other people's commonplace books. And love looking over my own, it brings back so many specific recollections. Do you find you recall where you were or what you were up to when you copied something out?

  5. I LOVE commonplace books! I routinely note down bits from books I am reading, but now I'm thinking that I really haven't done this well at all, as these notes are scattered everywhere, in lots of different notebooks and scraps of paper.

  6. CW - thanks for commenting...I love to note down bits as well, and my commonplace books are really the only place I'm truly organized! -- well, those and my spice drawer ;)


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