Commonplace Books: A Lecture -- By: James Davie Butler

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 041:163 (Jul 1884)
Article: Commonplace Books: A Lecture
Author: James Davie Butler


Commonplace Books: A Lecture

Prof. James Davie Butler

It was once my fortune to spend a morning in the study of John Quincy Adams while it still remained just as he left it. I read many a title on the backs of books arrayed in long lines, and climbed the ladder to search on highest shelves for I knew not what of rich and rare. The printed books were ten thousand, but they were of small interest to me compared with a single square black chest, which was filled with the note-books of the president, — his life-blood treasured up for a life beyond life. By virtue of being well introduced, I was vouchsafed an hour’s inspection of these manuscripts. The first I took up was written when the author was a boy of fifteen; the next marked “rubbish,” was an account of his journey, at the close of his administration, from Washington to Boston. Many a volume was written throughout with observations, thoughts, and feelings during more than half a century. Mrs. Adams told me that when her husband took a journey he seemed to have no thought of books, or silver, or children; but always said, “Now Mary, if the house takes fire, look out for this chest! “In that chest I saw the well-spring whence had flowed the speeches and published writings of the most active, versatile, and erudite of our chief magistrates, and could not doubt but that Adams had inured himself to read and think “pen in hand,” as a help to retain and lit for use whatever he acquired or excogitated. In this habit I detected, as I thought, the secret of that talent, so diversified and ready, which made men say of Adams,

“Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter.”

A similar habit of writing in connection with study seems to me useful to every scholar who would make the most of himself, and accordingly I shall now set forth before you some uses, as they lie in my mind, of keeping what, for want of a better term, I will call a commonplace book.

But first permit me to state what I mean by keeping a commonplace book. Do I mean, as many do, copying the books we read, or extracts from them, or the indexes to them? Do I mean, merely or chiefly, copying of any sort? No, nothing of the kind. What then? My idea of a commonplace book is a blank volume in which you first set down the name of the first subject concerning which you purpose to speak, read, or write, or in which you feel special interest. Suppose the first topic to be commonplace books themselves. Under this heading you will note the names of scholars who have made that kind of book, or have advised to make it, the volume and page where you find such facts. You will add from time to time hints at reasons for (o...

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