It is always a pleasure at Artist Book Fairs to meet and converse with visitors. While at the Society of Bookbinders Book Arts day recently, I had fascinating conversation with a gentleman who had asked about these books. We discussed whether they are 'sketchbooks' . I explained they are made for my own purposes and contain various collections of words, extracts, images, drawings and paintings. They inform the various projects that I may be focussing on. To my mind, they are more than sketchbooks, but neither are they journals, or diaries. In amongst the pages are a collection of other peoples 'voices' and my responses to them.
The physical, often slow process involved in producing these books allows connections to form. It is while being 'active' - either drawing or writing, that I find ideas begin to evolve allowing my thinking about the particular project to become clearer. The artwork in these books tends to be more resolved than just sketches. The books are containers for research and ideas supporting other work. I see them as a place to anchor thoughts in the process of defining what I am trying to express.
During the conversation the gentleman responded by saying "so they are commonplace books?". Being unfamiliar with this term I became curious to find more information.
A commonplace book; a book into which notable extracts poems, etc are copied for future reference, often together with one's own ideas and reflections.
First recorded in 1570 -90, the commonplace book is most closely associated with England of the 18th and 19th centuries. When books were so expensive, passages would often be copied out into personal notebooks as a method of study. Generally these notebooks were kept private. In 1685 English physician John Locke published his influential book A New Method of Making Common Place Books in which he set out his unique method of indexing information. This method was to be used for at least a hundred years.
In an article from 1970 William Cole has this to say "Common place is not the best word for a book whose contents are usually far from commonplace. The quickest definition of the genre is 'an annotated personal anthology". The key word for the commonplace book is annotated. it is not just an anthology: the compiler reacts to the passages he has chosen and tells what the passages have led him to think about."
While Robert Darnton not only sees commonplace books an aid in recollecting complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects, but as a source of creativity and means to order experience.
'By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishman gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. the elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology - a process of knowing- at work below the surface." (Robert Darnton found here).
So in conclusion would these books be better described as Commonplace books? I would suggest the 'annotated" element is to be found in my drawings and paintings - these are my responses to the passages which resonate for me. This wonderful chance encounter has opened a window into an exciting world of people passionate about books in which they too have 'anchored' their responses in searching for understanding of the world around them.