The author Aulus Gellius lived in Rome for much of his life, but he was not Roman by birth. The Roman empire had captured many peoples and their lands, including the Samnites, an Oscan-speaking tribe from the mountains north of Rome, to whom Gellius traced his ancestry. Rome had also taken control of much of North Africa, and Gellius is believed to have been born in Africa and come north to Athens and Rome in his later teens. It was nearly 2,000 years ago, so what we know about him comes mostly from his own writing.
I’m interested in Gellius because his book, Attic Nights, was a major best seller for many centuries. It was so very popular for generations that it’s hard to believe it is all but forgotten today.
Gellius didn’t write it at night in an attic. The title refers to the long winter nights he spent writing on the Attic Peninsula, where Athens is located. He wrote in Latin—Oscan having slowly gone extinct (although it survived long enough to be found in some of the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii).
I have no wish to be buried under volcanic ash like Pompeii was, but Gellius’ Attic nights are definitely appealing. I’d love to write a book during long winter nights on the Attic Peninsula. Sounds romantic!
Attic Nights is a very early example of a commonplace book. What, you may ask, is that? Another all but forgotten thing that was once quite popular.
A century before I was a student there, keeping commonplace books was a core component of the Harvard curriculum. Thoreau learned common-placing at Harvard and he used his commonplace books as source materials for Walden and other famous works.
Still, why should we care about this archaic practice today?
The idea is powerful: A personal notebook into which you transcribe quotes you love, interesting facts, a note about how to use semicolons, or your grandmother’s ginger cookie recipe so you don’t forget it.
The commonplace book seems misnamed because its collections of thoughts and quotations were were uncommonly interesting tidbits—along with the author’s thinking and the links connecting them. (Actually, the name derives from the Latin term, locus communis, meaning something of general or common interest.)
What may be most interesting about this archaic form of notebooking is the practice of it. Akin to journaling because of the frequent and informal nature of the entries, but neither linear nor documentary, commonplacing involves capturing whatever you consider to be notable stuff—some of which would now be called memes. And not just words. Many commonplace books were filled with sketches and drawings too.
If you’ve enjoyed Pinterest boards of images and quotes, you might think of those as distant descendants of the commonplace book.
I’m intrigued by the idea of reintroducing commonplacing for anyone who wants to develop their writing and thinking skills. In particular, the practice might be useful to the essayist or novelist, where original thoughts and creative voicing are all-important. For artists and illustrators, the traditional artist’s notebook is the visual equivalent.
A commonplace book might be a better exercise for students than a daily journal because it encourages the selection and transcription of favorite passages from famous authors or poets, which is a great exercise for developing writers. And I love how commonplace books have no firm rules. You can put a recipe for croissants next to a quote about philosophy if they relate to each other in your mind. It’s entirely your own creative and intellectual journey. (Incidentally, the French philosopher Ruwen Ogien actually wrote a book equating croissants and philosophy a few years ago. Its title is, Human Kindness and the Smell of Warm Croissants: An Introduction to Ethics. I wonder if he’d juxtaposed a favorite recipe with a note about ethics in a notebook and then thought, Ah ha! That gives me a good idea for my next book!)
Gellius' famous best-seller is typeset and designed for public consumption, but it was based on his personal commonbook. You won’t be able to check out an early edition of Attic Nights from your local library, but occasionally you’ll find images posted by rare book dealers, such as pages from a 1526 edition offered for sale by McClosky’s Antiquarian in Ontario (try searching for it). For a mere $1,700 plus shipping you could own this volume, but I’m happy with a free glimpse or two—which reveals a fun and creative approach, not your typical page after page of standard type. Illuminated letters start each chapter, and one chapter ends with text tapering to a vanishing point. Cool!
Attic Nights was the inspiration for many a famous author’s note-taking. Virginia Wolf is said to have used commonbooks to good effect (her travel diaries seem to include quotes, budgets, and other insertions that might be inspired by Gellius).
I think introducing the practice of commonplacing is a great way to help students with their own writing goals and aspirations—and most useful when they are instructed to make their commonplace books personal, inspiring, and fun.
The thing about the commonplace book that I find most notable is this: You’re writing it for yourself. That’s an audience of just one reader, but, I think, the most important reader of all.
Alex Hiam is the author of Silent Lee and the Adventure of the Side Door Key and Silent Lee and the Oxford Adventure, available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon or through your favorite bookshop.