Archives for category: Writing

If you hit Command C and copy someone else’s words, then paste them, and go through the quote and edit it into “your own words”, are you in fact indulging in plagiarism? PlagiarismToday says yes in their post “Why you can’t make someone else’s words your own”. Jonathan Bailey has devised a procedure called Cleanroom which is designed to help writers avoid plagiarism. Given that the main edict is “don’t copy and paste” this might seem a bit circular. Mr Bailey’s point about avoiding copying and pasting is that it’s copying not writing. OK. More importantly, more riskily, if you do a lot of it you will almost inevitably miss changing some of your pastings into “your own words”. These sentences, even if you do remember to edit them, will of course not really be “your own words” — they are someone else’s thoughts, disguised so they can pass as your own.

Notwithstanding, I have to confess to doing this from time to time. I do believe that what I copy and edit are always fairly short bits: maybe a full sentence. I believe that I do it so that I won’t get the argument wrong more than just to reproduce the thought. I think (and hope) that my editing is always pretty extensive. Oftentimes, if it just looks like it’ll be too much of a hassle to change it all, I do enclose the resultant paste in quotation marks, and attribute it — which is obviously the “right” thing to do.

Copy and paste is almost certainly what led to a steady increase in the length of manuscripts submitted to publishers (at least to academic publishers) towards the end of the last century. In the olden days if you added a couple of sentences in the middle of Chapter Three, then you had to retype the entire chapter to accommodate the insertion: one would try to make a balancing deletion in order to avoid having to retype the whole damn thing. As soon as we got word processors we could shunt paragraphs around and add lots of second thoughts without any need to delete first ones. First thoughts plus second thoughts equal longer books.

I’d no idea that I’d been involved in decades of paratext generation.

IGI, the publisher of Examining Paratextual Theory and its Applications in Digital Culture by Nadine Desrochers and Daniel Apollon, tells us “The paratext framework is now used in a variety of fields to assess, measure, analyze, and comprehend the elements that provide thresholds, allowing scholars to better understand digital objects. Researchers from many disciplines revisit paratextual theories in order to grasp what surrounds text in the digital age.” Amazing how easy it is to write simple stuff in a way nobody can understand!

Despite all the gobbledegook, paratext basically means all the stuff surrounding and supporting the text of a document, in the case of a book — the cover, title page, index etc.* There was a flurry on the SHARP listserv recently after someone asked for help locating studies of digital paratexts.

Books have those “paratextual” elements added to them by publishers because that’s what we’ve done to them for hundreds of years — and over hundreds of years such stuff has proved its use in navigating the book. People have come to expect it, and to some extent even to depend on it. Now, anyone working for a publishing company almost intuitively knows what bits need to be added to the author’s manuscript to make a proper (printed) book.

Then along comes the ebook. Just take the p-book and digitize it, and Bob’s your uncle. We’ve just taken the book and all its features over into the ebook format, even though there must be other, better things we might do. Trouble is it’s hard to imagine what these other things might be, and there’s just no money in rethinking the ebook format right now.

But it’s still early days. Eventually someone will discover the potential of the digital format to do this or that, and we’ll come up with a better way of dealing with this sort of material. These practices take a long time to establish — we didn’t even start to get page numbers on a regular basis until the end of the fifteenth century — so don’t go holding your breath in anticipation of any exciting change in the mechanics of the ebook. In fact, of course, the ebook as we know it is almost certain NOT going to be the format in which people access text in the future. We just haven’t come up with the better methodology yet — but of course we will I’m sure. Whatever traditionalists (like me) may think, paper will not be how most people access their reading material in a hundred years. (See also A different kettle of fish.) I am always struck by just how clunky and primitive the reading tablets in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series seem to have been, especially in comparison with the other technologies they’d been able to evolve. Surely we could do better with 20,000 or whatever years in which to try. Just takes imagination. Will Artificial Intelligence bail us out?

The Economist has an article on AI, which makes it all seem pretty ominous. Seems to me that it’s quite probable that we’ll develop an AI system that ends up being so much more “intelligent” than we are that humans will end up being disposable (if we survive global warming and nuclear war). AI already can take care of writing journalism and poetry: and it’s become a lot better at it than it was when I wrote about it four years ago. In a way there’s surely no essential difference between a “robot” called AI that paints a picture using the artificial aid of its programming, and an artist who paints a picture using the artificial aid of a paint brush. And why can’t we be excited about an expert AI tale-spinner rather than insisting on our stories being written by live authors with all the usual pains, problems and prejudices?

Of course, thinking like this just adds to the risks humankind faces — if we have an AI system that can do painting, novels and poetry better than humans, why should we expect Big AI to tolerate incompetents who have ignored global warming and nuclear arms build-ups. But still, it might actually work out pretty well: if we can continue to “exist” virtually, eliminating only our inefficient physical apparatus, could the world not be a better place? Program the system to steer clear of our bad habits and the world can keep on keeping on without the damage we humans have learnt to dump onto it. The sign will read “Last human to check out — do not interfere with Big AI’s programming, and leave the lights on.”

So, just what we might like to see “thresholding” our digital books is something some genius still needs to figure out. No doubt progress will be made in tiny fits and starts. As I say, part of the problem is that there’s no profit to be made in doing much to improve the ebook, so we just leave it as a straight conversion of a print book. It all ends up a bit chicken-and-eggy — until readers want better paratextual apparatus for ebooks we won’t be able to afford to create different paratexts. And until we make them, how’s anyone meant to be able to imagine what a better ebook might look like?

Coming back to earth, I have of course written over the years about many (most?) paratextual elements, such as bar codes, bibliographies, blurb, book jacket, CIP, colophon, copyright page, table of contents, errata, figure, fly-title, half-title, indexes, ISBN, page numbering, running head, running feet, and tables.

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*The Oxford English Dictionary adds subdivisions to the word paratext, breaking it down into “the peritext, e.g. front cover, introduction, footnotes, etc.” —the stuff attached to the book, which they contrast with external thresholding: “the epitext, e.g. reviews, advertisements, interviews, etc.”.

We’ve become accustoms to hearing about how dissatisfied with their publisher some authors are. The rhetoric mainly originates with self publishing enthusiasts who seem determined to remain dissatisfied till they can force everyone else to agree with them. However, rather obviously given the numbers of books published every year, not all writers agree, and here’s an example. Dana Schwartz is pretty happy. She tells expectant authors about what they’re in for, starting from the writing of the book and up to signing copies for excited buyers. Her piece at The Observer is entitled “15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Publishing a Book”. The Passive Voice sends the link to Ms Schwartz’s 2017 piece.

We’ve all read pieces in almost exactly the same form as hers where the author bitches about publishers, their lack of sympathy, their inefficiency, their rapaciousness, their lethargy, their incompetence. I hope her YA book And We’re Off sells well: we need to keep her onside! As she’s now got three more books from different publishers out I suspect there’s no need to worry.

The relationship between publisher and author is always at risk of deterioration — after all no publisher can force the public to buy a book, and the author will tend to regard any such shortfalls as failures of the publisher not of themselves — after all their book was self-evidently perfect. The more experienced author will recognize the collaborative nature of the author/publisher relationship, and give credit where credit may be due. Deserving of mention in this regard is Professor G. L. S. Shackle, an economist, who’d take the time after each of his books came out to come down from Liverpool to Cambridge and personally thank every employee who had worked on his latest book.

John James Audubon was born in Haiti on 26 April 1785, illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his chambermaid. His mother having died, his father took him with him back to France where his loyal wife brought up the boy as her own. In 1803, probably to dodge conscription in Napoleon’s army, Jean Jacques shipped out to an estate of his father’s near Philadelphia. He married and set up as a trader in Kentucky, achieving bankruptcy in 1819, whereupon he was put in jail. After his release he made a precarious living as a portrait painter and teacher.

Birds were among the subjects he painted and a small showing of them in Cincinnati in 1820 was well received. Later that year he embarked on a flatboat as a working passenger with his drawing materials, his gun, a flute, the clothes he was wearing, and a letter of recommendation from Henry Clay. Audubon had met Alexander Wilson, author of American Ornithology, and believed he could do better, though he could not but recognize that Wilson knew a lot more about birds than he did. The boat took him to New Orleans which became his headquarters for the next six years. His living was made painting portraits, teaching art, music, dance, and fencing, with help from his wife who joined him in the south fourteen months after his arrival. All the time he was painting birds, and as this picture from one of his notebooks shows, kept studying ornithology.

Some insight into his working methods may be gained by his statement “The many foreshortenings unavoidable in groups like these, have been rendered attainable by means of squares of equal dimensions affixed both on my paper and immediately behind the subjects before me. . . . I have never drawn from a stuffed specimen . . . nature must be seen first alive, and well studied before attempts are made at representing it.” He did in fact end up having to use a few stuffed models or skins only. Working from dead models presented its own problems — he had to work fast before the color of the eyes and feet faded. In the spring of 1821 he had difficulty getting his image of the great white heron to come alive on the paper. “By the time he was finished the bird was putrefying, but braving the nauseating stench, Audubon opened the bird’s carcass to determine the bird’s sex and its eating habits.” Apparently either from hunger or curiosity he ate a large number of the birds he pictured, testifying that “starlings were delicate eating” while flickers he complained tasted too much of the ants they fed upon. Perish the thought, but how would you know what ants taste like?

Overall Audubon worked principally in water color, but he employed other media such as pencil, pastel and ink. Most of his earliest surviving work is in pencil and pastel color. He drew on the largest sheet available, double elephant, 40″ x 30″ and it was at this size that he commissioned reproductions from English engraver Robert Havell Jr. Havell printed the paintings on the same double elephant size sheet — they measure 29½” x 39½” (no doubt they got a little trim on all four sides, though standard sizing was probably a bit more variable back then). Printing, by a combination of aquatint and etching, was of the outlines only: the colors were added by hand. At one time Havell had fifty men and women working on the coloring of the job. The prints were offered for sale loose as folios of prints, and this I suspect is what explains the habit of referring to the paper size as “double elephant folio”. Folio, in the book paper context, implies there was one fold, which would have resulted in book with an untrimmed page size of 20″ x 30″. But of course books containing bound-up selections of Audubon’s prints are twice that size. They must have incorporated the prints by tipping them onto stubs bound in place.

Audubon worked hard at developing the business represented by the selling of prints of his paintings. The creation of The Birds of America is said to have cost $2 million at today’s values, and selling subscriptions was a never-ending process. Apart from business and birding he managed to write enough to fill a 900-page volume in the Library of America’s edition.

Towards the end of his life he was helped by his son John Woodhouse Audubon, to create a smaller format edition of The Birds of America. The art was allegedly copied by his son with the aid of a camera lucida for lithographic reproduction— presumably we are talking here of projecting the images onto litho stones and drawing them there. I may be guilty of inadequate imagination here, but to me this seems to suggest that the images would end up reversed unless they were printed by offset lithography— but allegedly offsetting wasn’t discovered till the early twentieth century. Were mirrors involved? Must be so.

He died in 1851 at his estate overlooking the Hudson, about twenty blocks south of where I sit. He’s buried in the cemetery on his estate’s southern boundary. The area is referred to as Audubon Park Historic District. On the map below it’s located at the end of the label for Hispanic Society Museum and Library. A few blocks further north, on Broadway, can be found the Audubon Ballroom — well its facade and part of the interior anyway — site of Malcolm X’s assassination.

The Audubon Ballroom facade

In 1863 Audubon’s widow, Lucy Bakewell Audubon, sold to The New-York Historical Society her husband’s preparatory watercolors for The Birds of America (published serially in London between 1827 and 1838). The Society owns all 435 known preparatory watercolors. They also have a double-elephant edition of The Birds of America, as well as the octavo edition and his Ornithological Biography

Northern Manhattan is the center of the Audubon Mural Project, where all round the neighborhood bird paintings have sprung up on public walls and doorways.

And of course, perhaps the most appropriate memorial, The Audubon Society is named after him.

Though he was a shooter, Audubon would be happy that we are now able to look out from his estate and observe almost every day peregrines, red-tailed hawks, Cooper’s hawks and bald eagles. These last, I like to think, have been coaxed back to the city by a program a decade or more ago whereby fledglings were raised in Inwood Hill Park at the very northern tip of Manhattan. The idea was that by growing up there they’d be more likely to come back to live (and breed) as adults. Seems to be working, though I don’t think we’ve gotten to breeding yet. I’ve observed a couple eating their lunch on an ice floe floating upstream just below my window. Bald eagle populations have recovered nationwide from close to extinction to about half a million, almost their assumed numbers at the time of the arrival of that scourge, the European.

Audubon’s bald eagle

Kurt Vonnegut claimed that the anthropology department of the University of Chicago rejected his master’s thesis which was about the shapes of stories “because it was so simple and looked like too much fun”. It’s rather hard to read this graphic based upon his idea — you need to watch the video linked to below in order to enjoy the theory.

It’s not altogether clear that Vonnegut ever used his shape theory as a tool in his writing, but he certainly went on talking about the idea. You can watch a 2004 video at Big Think where for about three-quarters of an hour Vonnegut talks, touchingly and amusingly, getting around to the shape of stories for the last few minutes.

Plagiarism isn’t right, of course, but it always seems to me that its seriousness depends on who’s doing it and why. A politician is found to have plagiarized when writing their master’s thesis? So what? They’ve no doubt done a lot worse. An undergraduate plagiarizes in their weekly essay? Give me a break: what else are they meant to do? Well of course mentioning a source might be the responsible thing to do, but we can’t expect him/her to refer exclusively to their own original research can we? A bestselling author is shown to have cribbed most of their latest from someone else’s unknown novel — well, now you’re talking. (Part of the mystery surrounding the recent manuscript theft case is that this is exactly what it looks like, but there’s no evidence that the alleged perpetrator did anything of the kind.)

Of course influence can look like plagiarism and even Shakespeare‘s been tarred with this brush. If an Andrew Lloyd Webber tune sounds a bit like Puccini, that’s one thing. If a Puccini piece sounds like Puccini that’s a horse of a different color. It’s a bit like an accent: hard to avoid. If you mistake someone on the street for a friend of yours, you can hardly accuse the stranger of trying to pass themselves off as your buddy.

Still, although things shade off into these grey areas, we are usually talking about more obvious behavior when we discuss plagiarism. Given that academic jobs are distributed on the basis of publication activity, it’s not altogether amazing that, in order to get tenure, one or two over-eager professors are willing to pass off the work of others as their own. This can be as simple as just copying a journal article, and changing the author’s name, though usually a little more effort is put into the task. The OUP Blog brings us an examination of six types of plagiarism.

The six headings under which they examine plagiarism are:

  • Paraphrasing (without mentioning the source)
  • Patchwork or mosaic copying
  • Verbatim quotation without acknowledgement
  • Source-based plagiarism (faking a good looking source)
  • Global plagiarism (passing off a copied work as yours)
  • Self-plagiarism

In one way one might think that self-plagiarism is fair enough — if I can’t use my own works who’s work can I trust? But of course the issue is providing a reference. By failing to mention that the authority you are referring to is actually yourself, you attempt to imply that other researchers think as you do. And of course any extensive undercover quotation from yourself is a sign of laziness.

During the Covid epidemic, they inform us, “globally, the similarity score for academic submissions rose from an average of 35.1% to an average of 49.6% across the two measured time periods. This includes a 31% rise in paraphrased content and a 39% rise in identically matched content.”

The post is written by Epigeum, Oxford’s online course provider. They tell us that they “offer a number of programmes on these subjects [avoiding plagiarism and other poor practices] that provide comprehensive training and can form part of a wider approach to research or academic integrity”.

Bit depressing that we live in a world where integrity has become something adults need to be trained in. Plagiarism is obviously surprisingly hard to avoid. Just keep your references up to date, OK?

For a particular instance, see Textbook withdrawn. Another earlier post, Plagiarism suit, looks at a self-publishing outbreak. Plagiarism tales a look at on-line plagiarism checkers as part of a discussion of another Oxford University Press manifestation.

A year ago on 6 January I wrote a piece entitled Motiveless Theft? Now, exactly one year later, here comes Publishers Lunch with a resolution:

The FBI arrested Filippo Bernardini, 29, on Wednesday afternoon when he landed at JFK Airport in New York, and unsealed an indictment, in a long overdue deal,  charging him with with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Bernardini is accused of conducting “a multi-year scheme to impersonate individuals involved in the publishing industry in order to fraudulently obtain hundreds of prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books.”

Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York FBI office Michael Driscoll said in a news release: “We allege Mr. Bernardini used his insider knowledge of the industry to get authors to send him their unpublished books and texts by posing as agents, publishing houses, and literary scouts. Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.”

According to his LinkedIn page Bernardini has worked in the rights department at Simon & Schuster UK since October 2019, a “junior staffer” if you will, and previously had interned at Mira Trenchard Literary Scouting and Andrew Nurnberg Associates). He is an Italian citizen, living and working in London. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleges that, “Beginning in at least August 2016, Bernardini, who was based in London and worked in the publishing industry, began impersonating agents, editors, and other individuals involved in publishing to fraudulently obtain prepublication manuscripts.”

Simon & Schuster said in a statement it was “shocked and horrified” by the allegations against Bernardini, who has been suspended pending further information. “The safekeeping of our authors’ intellectual property is of primary importance to Simon & Schuster, and for all in the publishing industry, and we are grateful to the FBI for investigating these incidents and bringing charges against the alleged perpetrator.”

Bernardini is said to have created fake email accounts at more than 160 internet domains and “impersonated hundreds of distinct people and engaged in hundreds of unique efforts to fraudulently obtain electronic copies of manuscripts that he was not entitled to.”

He is also accused of “a phishing scheme to surreptitiously gain access to a database maintained by a New York City-based literary scouting company” in 2020. The indictment says he acquired login credentials to two client accounts, and used those for unauthorized access to the scouting company’s site.

Vulture has a round up piece giving details of several victims.

“Motiveless theft” is how I referred to it last year, and I’m still puzzled about motivation, as it seems is everyone. The FBI says “Mr. Bernardini was allegedly trying to steal other people’s literary ideas for himself, but in the end he wasn’t creative enough to get away with it.” Well, OK, in a way, but . . . If that was really his motivation wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just to go to the library or read book reviews — it’s not possible to keep plots and ideas locked up inside books after all. Stealing manuscripts might have been a business plan forty years ago when they were either handwritten or typed out: you might even have been able to demand a ransom for a unique copy of a handwritten original, but there would have been a black market for manuscripts of questionable origin. Now surely all you’re getting is a duplicate copy of an electronic file. I suppose it’s theft, but I can’t see that he stole anything really worth stealing — though I guess the FBI wouldn’t nab him if there wasn’t a crime going on.

Did Filippo want to be a published author, making use of plagiarized texts? There is one Filippo Bernardini listed at Amazon, but as his book was published in 1929, I suspect this is a different person, as no doubt is the man after whom Via Filippo Bernardini in Rome is named. So if he didn’t want to be an author, did he want to be a publisher? Apparently not, otherwise that would surely have happened already, and nobody seems to have reported duplicate publications of the “hundreds of unpublished manuscripts” involved, even under noms de plume. A victimless crime? He is being charged with wire fraud and identity theft. It’s clearly not “right” to do this sort of thing, but really who has been harmed? The indictment states that Mr Bernardini shall “forfeit to the United States . . . any and all property, real and personal, that constitutes or is derived from proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense, including but not limited to a sum of money in United States currency representing the amount of proceeds traceable to the commission of said offense.” So maybe there were some proceeds, but neither the indictment, nor the press release provide any details. A bit of wasted time would seem to me to be the “cost” for the authors and agents involved. At Defector Kelsey McKinney shares my puzzlement as to Mr Bernardini’s motives: she inclines to think he must have done it just for fun. Maybe it just goes to show that Simon & Schuster failed to keep a smart employee fully busy. Mr Bernardini has been released on bail.

Peter Ginna (Dr Syntax) sends us via Twitter, an approving note of Cory Doctorow’s Medium piece on publishing and self publishing. I took issue with this essay back in July, and have no reason to change my mind. Arguments against straw men are always hard to lose, and Mr Doctorow inevitably emerges from his “courageous” battle with triumph.

The piece is prefaced by this nice, if irrelevant, illustration:

Mr Barrett is probably not responding to enquiries these days, but being able to get lots of small checks adding up to worthwhile* money, and all with no tedious study, is of course not unattractive. One commenter suggested it wasn’t that easy as the cost of postage eats into your earnings too much!

Here’s another group of ads from 1972, including another from Mr Barrett:

Writing short paragraphs has a trade signification here, and I guess we now have computers which can do this for us. But of course brevity is an ideal for any writer, though the paragraph doesn’t need to be the primary focus. We used to use at school a textbook called From Paragraph to Essay, by A. F. Scott (published by Cambridge University Press) but here the focus was on getting us lazy dogs to write more, not less. A paragraph is meant to contain the discussion of a single idea. Just get it done, and on to the next brainwave. Friedrich Hebbel’s introduction to one of his plays contains sentence which goes on for two or three pages before one meets with the relief of a full stop, and, it being German, the verb. Probably could’ve been a paragraph on its own, but nobody could ever get to the end of it remembering how it started off, so it’s hard to know.

Shorter is undoubtedly better: if your thought’s that complicated stop where you are, and start again. I find I’m increasingly grateful to authors who write in short chapters. When you are reading in bed, the prospect of another twenty pages before you can sensibly stop and fall asleep (rather than just pretending to be awake) is often a daunt.

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* No doubt Mr Barrett treats “worth while” as two words, because you often get paid by the word, don’t you?

Well of course writers are often not responsible for the headlines that introduce their work, but you’re trailing your coat quite a bit when you allow them to head your piece “The Strange History of the Worst Sentence in English Literature” as April Snellings does at Mental Floss. We’ll all fall over with surprise, won’t we, when we read on to discover that the “worst sentence” is “It was a dark and stormy night”, the opening of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford, a well-regarded 1830 novel.

Lord Lytton in 1873.
GEORGIOSART // ISTOCK VIA GETTY IMAGES PLUS

By the end of the piece Ms Snellings has gotten around to wondering, inconclusively, whether the sentence is actually that bad, but she begins her essay provocatively “if you want to start a novel badly, any cartoon beagle can tell you that there’s only one choice: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.” This is just automatic writing I’m afraid. Surely even a second or two’s thought would lead you to hesitate before writing anything so silly. Sure Snoopy is a cartoon character, and we are meant to laugh, but we shouldn’t think that that means we go to Charles Schulz for life advice.

Whatever you may think about “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” (not actually a sentence, just a clause — not a phrase as Ms Snellings has it) there’s no way it can be judged to be the worst in any contest. It’s not even bad. We can all think of ways to make it bad, I dare say, but as a straightforward statement of fact it doesn’t really seem possible to say it any better. All this fuss just seems ignorant — it falls into the same category of stupidity as “all Scotsmen are mean (tight-wads)” or “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief”. Nobody really believes that sort of thing, we’re all just joking around — except that poor old Bulwer-Lytton gets a stupid prize named after him, and the Scottish guy gets to buy the extra round of beers.

We pretend that reading makes you smarter, yet readers unthinkingly judge “It was a dark and stormy night” to be bad writing. Get your brain in gear and think just a little.

Strange name when you think about it, as Katie Herman at The Rare Commons provokes you to do. “Commonplace books are personal notebooks full of interesting snippets and quotations from other authors, thinkers and poets, known as ‘commonplaces’, that are all held in a common place (the book itself.)” Not sure I go along with the etymology she proposes though.

As the Oxford English Dictionary informs us commonplace is named “after classical Latin locus communis, itself after Hellenistic Greek κοινὸς τόπος (in ancient Greek simply τόπος (Aristotle: see topic adj.)), explained by Cicero ( Inv. 2. 14. 47 et seq.) as a general theme or argument applicable to many particular cases. Later, collections of such general topics were called loci communes (frequently from the early 16th cent. in book titles).” The meaning of words travels of course. Getting from Cicero to “something everyone knows” is an understandable first step, but moving from there to a sense of “a trite, boring comment” and then to “a record of important passages” is an odd journey I think. Though I suppose if you allow for the arrogance of the intellectual, step one does become fairly obvious — “If they know it, it must be rubbish”.

Nowadays I think we think of a commonplace book as a collection of quotations which have struck the copier as particularly significant. In the second of her four Parts Ms Herman shows us a more directed sort of book: a typed-up listing of story ideas by H. P. Lovecraft. I guess he’d carry it around with him in case some random supernatural visitation compelled him suddenly to put pen to paper. There are examples of a few others at her third installment. And here’s Part 4, in which she suggests that commonplace books may be compared to social media. To some extent I’d agree that this blog is to somewhat analogous to a commonplace book. I get to note random things which pique my interest, and make what amounts to a quick note about them, often quoting others via links.

John Locke provided instructions on how to do a commonplace book properly. You can follow along at Harvard Library’s page viewer. Perhaps wisely Mr Lock, as they seem to have referred to him back in his day, emphasizes the finding of items using an indexing system. I rather think the chaos of a commonplace book is part of the charm, but of course if you are using your commonplace book as an aide-memoire it does make a difference if you can’t actually find the thing you’re trying to remember.

I do think there are some character traits which determine if you are the sort who likes this sort of organization, or one who’d prefer not to be forced into it. I have taken my BoB and entered it in Numbers in my MacBookAir (how I miss FileMaker Pro). It’s now easy to see when I last read Foundation ( — 1998); you just hit Command F and enter Foundation. But I still feel that searching though all those analog pages of listings brings with it an extra zing — “Oh I remember that book”, “Has it really been that long since I looked at Wuthering Heights?” etc. Even more intriguing is the all-too-common experience of “What on earth was that book about?” — e.g. in this picture that book by Robert Goddard: without out more research I fear it is indeed Beyond Recall.

I do of course have a commonplace book — stubbornly analog, indeed handwritten. Anyone who worked in book manufacturing in the last century had access to lots of blank books — we used to make a blank paper dummy for many books in order to make sure the die and the jacket fit the spine — and once you’ve used them for that purpose there they are — worth nothing, but beautiful objects just begging you to write something inside them. Mine is the bulking dummy for Alastair Fowler’s Triumphal Forms: Structural Patterns in Elizabethan Poetry (CUP, 1970). This book had an unusual format, rather taller and narrower than standards (5¾” x 9″), and my copy’s bound in a nice bit of cloth. I’ve used it merely as a sort of informal anthology of poems published in ephemeral sources — magazines, newspapers etc. To me the idea of indexing it is truly weird.

In some way one might regard Beethoven’s Conversation Books as the ultimate in commonplace books. When he became deaf he carried a notebook around with him in which may be found all sorts of aide memoire stuff, shopping lists, appointments, things to do, plus half of the conversations he’d hold — the incoming half. At a book event the other day Paul Griffiths told us he’d used the Conversation Books extensively to source the dialog he used in his novel Mr. Beethoven (NYRB, 2021), an imagining of Beethoven’s coming to Boston to attend the premiere of his (fictitious) oratory “Job” — a work which had in reality almost been commissioned by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society before the composer’s death.

Not that long ago I had occasion to allude to Robert Burns’ commonplace book. Doesn’t it look suspiciously lavish for a poor farm boy?