By PAT BERRY
For Montclair Local
Pat Berry is a writer, editor, and college application essay coach. Visit the archives at montclairlocal.news/tag/pat-berry/ for her tips on writing memorable essays, finding financial aid, compiling a realistic college list, and more. For information on essay coaching, visit collegeapplicationcamp.com and follow @college_essay_coach on Instagram. And consider joining the Facebook group “Montclair High Schools College Admissions,” a new forum where students, parents, and independent college consultants share and discuss resources related to the college admissions process.
When my mother passed away, I had at my fingertips a passage from literature I knew I would share at her memorial service. Long before Mom fell ill, I had read Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book,” which connects writing with not being forgotten. Orlean’s profound insights suited our celebration of life perfectly: Mom loved to read, and Orlean articulates in her book how storytelling and literature keep people alive in our memories and in the world. (If I’ve piqued your interest, read the last three paragraphs of Chapter 8. They’re breathtaking.)
I don’t have great powers of retention so I’ve made a habit of trapping literary passages I like as soon as I come across them. Which is to say when I read a piece of writing that I connect with or whose author does something impressive with language or that simply makes me smile (or weep), I write it down, noting the source and year of publication. This way I can revisit the passage again and again so that the author can affect me again and again. Maybe I’ll want to reference the work some time, say for my newspaper column or in remembering a loved one. You get the picture.
Enter the commonplace book, a type of journal not unlike a scrapbook that you fill with written items pulled from various text-based sources. The contents can range from excerpts of letters and literature to poems and proverbs. Dialogue from plays and political cartoons can also make their way into these collections, as can personal observations and/or illustrations related to any or all of the above.
Keeping commonplace books is a very old practice — they were extremely popular during the Renaissance — but the tracking of quotations that strike you has a practical value, particularly for today’s students and writers.
Just ask the author of “Dreyer’s English” (subtitled “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style”). Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, observes that the Internet has “grossly exacerbated the problem” of inaccuracies in quoting sources. We’ve all done it, trolled the Internet for a quote that puts a fine point on some observation we want to make in a piece of our own writing. But I daresay it’s a lazy, backdoor way of trying to impress — and the chance of grabbing a mangled or wrongly-attributed quotation is significant.
As an alternative, Dreyer suggests building either a paper or digital commonplace book, “someplace you can copy down bits of writing you encounter and find clever and/or meaningful — and keep it handy for future use, even if that future use is your own edification… Then at least, should you find yourself in a position to share with the world your own wisdom and want to periodically sprinkle it with others’ smarts, you’ll at least have something fresh and heartfelt to offer.” (How handy for the college applicant asked to provide their favorite quote, say in a supplement!) Plus, there’s the added reward of having come across a quotation the old-fashioned, no corner-cutting way — by pulling a book off a shelf, diving in, and coming across language that leaves you, well, gobsmacked.
Naturally, a commonplace book reflects the particular interests of its compiler. For as long as I can remember, I have collected evocative passages from novels (lines from Jane Austen and Barbara Kingsolver spring to mind), powerful commentary from memoirs (most recently that of “Know My Name’s” Chanel Miller), and clever dialogue from plays, movies, and television (Aaron Sorkin is a favorite) that have moved me in one way or another. But my keepsakes are scattered: I have hardcover journals and dedicated Word documents; I blog quotes via Instagram and keep them in the Notes app on my phone. My friend Mark, a book reviewer, sends out worthy lines via his Twitter feed, from which he can always access them.
Here’s the thing. The very act of transcribing is a joyful one, no matter where you retain it. It is for me at least. I take pleasure in writing an artist’s words with my own hand, pouring bright literary moments into my personal reservoir of resources. Frankly, I feel a little bit of pride for having discovered the lines in situ and been drawn to them with my own mind and heart. And I feel grateful that they exist.
Love books? This year’s Succeed2gether Montclair Literary Festival is March 25-29. See Succeed2gether.org.