Almost three years ago, I left off this series of ruminations on what exactly blogging was (to me at least) with a discussion of what blogging is often mistaken for, but is not. In the intervening years I have gotten a lot more comfortable with blogging in general, and with how I see it, and now I feel compelled to update a bit and expand on what I have said previously.
Let me begin with a quote from Roger Darnton, writing in The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000:
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 . . .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.
Not only does this sound distinctly like how I (and I think most people) approach their blogs, but it also brings up an important angle on the importance of commonplace books (and hence blogs if we accept them as a modern version thereof), the idea that commonplaces/blogs “belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs“.
Indeed, our world is full of signs, begging to be understood, interpreted, reflected on. What better way to accomplish that than through an edited collection of striking passages noted in a single place for future reference. That, of course, being the best definition of a commonplace book to be found, and one very applicable to the vast majority of blogs.