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My Commonplace Book and Why Everyone Should Keep One

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Make your own Bible. Select and Collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.

– Emerson Journals July 1836

 

I previously talked about the commonplace bookwhat it is and where it comes from. My research into the concept made me motivated to start my own commonplace book.

Why Do I Want to Keep A Commonplace Book 

As a regular journal keeper, I had to consider how this was going to work. My journal captures my life, or at least parts of it. I also have a quote journal, which while not regularly used is a place where I collect quotes. These quotes come from anywhere, and are not necessarily part of my reading. As much as the idea of keeping a commonplace book appealed to me, I wanted it to be something worthwhile so that I wouldn’t stop doing it once the novelty wore off.

I want my commonplace book to be about something specific, so I decided it would be a thing I use to improve as a reader and as a writer. In essence it will be a reading journal, but the notion of calling it a commonplace book feels far more romantic.

It differs slightly from a reading journal because the focus in the commonplace book is on other people’s words. In a reading journal, I might be too lazy to copy entire passages and may simply refer to the page numbers from the book. However, the point of a commonplace book is to write down quotes and passages you want to preserve. You make the work and the words your own, by transcribing them, and by digesting them.

Building Expertise

However, just because it’s for a specific purpose does not mean it’s limited. Think about what it would mean to be a better reader. You would read more and wide. You would read fiction and non-fiction, books, articles, essays and poems. All of these formats and ideas would bring you in contact with just about any issue humanity has faced or will face, as well as with a range of human emotions. For a reader, no book stands alone. Each story, each essay….every new sentence, it builds upon the material you have already explored. With each new piece of literature, you are not starting the journey, you are merely continuing it. 

Writing is the same. You may start a new article or a new book, but the writing ability you have today, is the result of all the words you’ve written in the past. 

Your commonplace book can be a place to see this evolution for whatever topic interests you, or whatever your purpose may be. You can see where you were when you started, and how far you’ve come. Have you finally read the classics you always meant to read? Have you finally figured out just how to appreciate Virginia Woolf’s works, or understand that Oscar Wilde’s sarcasm is so powerful because it is always coated in truth? 

Your commonplace book can be a place where you continue to build your expertise in one or more area by continuously mining the best information from available resources, by recording  your responses to it, and then using that information to come to your own conclusions and making personal associations.

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.

– Seneca

A Tool for Personal Evolution and Assessment

A commonplace book can also be a record of personal evolution. As I read, as my taste changes, as my knowledge increases (hopefully), and as my mind gets used to making more and more connections between various pieces of literature, as well as between literature and life, this will be reflected in my commonplace book. A commonplace book therefore can be both a tool for self-growth, and self-analysis.

One gets a pretty good idea of a man, his likes and prejudices, his quirks and manias, the variousness of his mind from reading a commonplace book. 

– William Cole

I want my commonplace book to be a place where I take the time to not only enjoy but to explore my reading, to make associations between literature and life, to learn how great writers did things, and to use it for continuous improvement. It will be a record of my Kaizen Reading

Are you keeping a commonplace book? What would you want to use it for? 

 

 

A Commonplace Book


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image by bluefootedbooby

 

I hadn’t given much thought to the commonplace book until recently. I’d heard the term in passing before, usually in books, but never really stopped to consider it. However, earlier this month I was talking to a professor at my former college, who upon learning about my journaling pursuits mentioned that he didn’t keep a journal but kept a commonplace book. It was a norm, particularly in higher education when he was growing up. As he is very intelligent, and really believes in learning as a lifelong activity, I thought there must be some merit to a method he’s been employing all these years. The idea of a commonplace book took root in my mind. 

Of course any kind of new “notebook keeping” is bound to get me curious, so yesterday, I spent hours researching the finer details of the commonplace book. 

What is a Commonplace Book?

Originally, a commonplace book was a central place where you collected knowledge that you can refer back to at a later date. The practice began in ancient times when books were scarce, and most people wouldn’t have been able to keep a large library. In order to remember, and to be able to revisit everything they found of value, they collected it in a commonplace book.

According to Wikipedia:

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós…) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. 

The translation was obviously not done by the greatest mind, since they term something “commonplace” which is actually not at all common. A commonplace book was a collection of passages and quotes that were of importance to the reader, and the entire exercise of keeping such a book required one to possess an intellectual disposition and an interest in knowledge, whether to use it or simply for its own sake. 

Overtime this method of keeping a commonplace book evolved. As books became more widely available and education became accessible to more people than just the rich, a commonplace book became something that people used to collect passages and quotes from their personal reading, often organised by topics. John Milton, Emerson, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Napolean, Marcus Aurelius, W H Auden are just a few of the famous people who kept a commonplace book. As one of my Kaizen Journaling reader, Samantha Russell, pointed out on the facebook page, Sherlock Holmes refers to his commonplace book in the stories. I would love to have a peek at his commonplace book.

How is a Commonplace Book different from a Journal

Let’s be clear: a commonplace book is not a journal.

Journal or a diary are chronological, and more centred on your life. They may include facts, introspections….or a combination of both. They may also include quotes and passages you collect. However, the whole point of a journal is that it is about you, and therefore the majority of words in it are yours. 

A commonplace book is where you collect other people’s words. Some people leave it strictly at that. Others will include their response to the things they quote, perhaps a reason for including it, or any questions it might make them ask. I’m with the latter group. I wouldn’t want to collect passages merely for the sake of collecting, because while it might make sense at the time, I may not remember five years later why it was important. 

I like how William Coe described it:

The key word for the commonplace book is “annotated.” It is not just an anthology; the compiler reacts to the passages he has chosen or tells what the passages have led him to think about. A piece of prose, a poem, an aphorism can trigger the mind to consider a parallel, to dredge something from the memory, or perhaps to speculate with further range and depth on the same them. 

Should You Keep A Commonplace Book

As soon as I did my initial research, I was sold on the idea. I wanted my own commonplace book, and I was already regretting that I didn’t know about it sooner. However, for each of us it would be different. I want my commonplace book to serve a specific purpose because I already keep a regular journal. 

I will talk about my personal plans for the commonplace book in the next post. If you are thinking about keeping one, think about how it would serve you. The reason for doing so is to remain motivated, long term, to continue adding to it. Otherwise you may end up with a mostly blank book.

Virginia Woolf described this ill-fate with her usual literary panache: 

Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.

Though it may seem like an antiquated concept, keeping a collection of wisdom in the age of electronics, I think it is all the more valuable because of it. We live in the age where information is zooming past us faster than we can digest it. Something like a commonplace book gives you an opportunity to pause, reflect, and digest what you learn. 

Have you ever kept a commonplace book? Share your tips in the comments. 

 

 

 

 

 

While the World Sleeps

This essay is the first in a collection in Ben Okri’s book, A Way of Being Free. The book is seemingly based on creativity, and yet really about life, dreams, authenticity, and so much more.

While the World Sleeps sets the stage for the rest of the book, the very title turning on the imagination. Think about being awake while the world is sleeping, literally and metaphorically. Think about the silence, the aloneness, and the possibilities. This essay uses that metaphor to offer both hope and a reality check.

It uses poets as its vehicles, but the truth of it applies to anyone who is attempting to seek out the truth in the world, and not be limited by the external boundaries. There are plenty of external boundaries. Even if we see the beauty and the limitless potential of what the world could be, the world doesn’t allow us to just retrieve that beauty. It doesn’t allow us to just embrace our vision.

“In the hands of the poet, the world is resistant. It is only with the searching and the moulding that the unyielding world becomes transformed in a new medium of song and metaphor.” [Pg 1]

We must snatch what fragments we can, and then put them back together like a puzzle. We must then continue to work at this puzzle, refining the rough edges, fitting it into a cohesive whole until it resembles our original vision.

To do this, to snatch these fragments of our waking dream, we must remain awake to see the world for what it truly is, in all its glory and hideousness.

“The poet needs to be up at night, when the world sleeps; needs to be up at dawn, before the world wakes; needs to dwell in odd corners, where Tao is said to reside; needs to exist in dark places, where spiders forge their webs in silence; near the gutters, where the underside of our dreams fester. Poets need to live where others don’t care to look, and they need to do this because if they don’t they can’t sing to us of all the secret and public domains of our lives.” [Pg 1]

Only by staying awake to see the true nature of the world, we can also see “the fluid nature of reality.” [Pg 2] We can see what most people are terrified to admit: “each individual reality is different. Laws do not bind our perceptions. There are as many worlds as there are lives.” [Pg 2]

The hope is that if we are courageous enough to acknowledge and accept our dreams, to go after them, then we can extend the boundaries of the world offered to us. We can alter our reality.

But courage is a must, because most people are afraid of people who have that kind of courage. By altering our own world, we may also alter theirs, and that frightens them. “…the dreams of the people are beyond them. It is they who have to curb the poet’s vision of reality.” [Pg 4]

If you choose to stay awake while the world sleeps, if you choose to notice the things the world is uncomfortable you noticing, you may be seen as set against the world because you “cannot accept that what there seems to be is all there is.” [Pg 3]

The reality is that we are expected, in this world of rules and regulations and political correction to sing “only of our restricted angles and in restricted terms and in restricted language.” [Pg 4, 5]

To go beyond those restrictions to the limitless means of expression available to us is seen often as sowing dissent. However, you don’t need to be frightened of people who are frightened themselves. You don’t need to submerge yourself in what the world seems to be, because “[the world] carries within it for ever the desire to be transformed into something higher.”[Pg 6] Use your dreams, the truth you see while the world is asleep and keep going where your dreams lead you. 

“The world may seem unyielding but, like invisible forces in the air, it merely awaits imagination and will to unloosen the magic within itself.” [Pg 6]

When you seek the truth while the world sleeps, don’t just look into the outward nooks and crannies. Look for the truth within yourself. Dig deep.

“The deeper poet feel, the deeper is their exploration.” [Pg 7]

If you feel the fire within you, if you feel that what you see and what you get is not enough, then you must go after what you wish the truth to be. Don’t let the “ghost of your possibilities” [Pg 12] hang around your neck. Don’t murder the possibilities of all that you could be. Don’t murder your dreams.

There will be people and institutions and government who don’t like your unconventional ways; who don’t approve of you extending boundaries of their world, but “it’s from the strength of your antagonists that you derive your greater authority. They make it absolutely necessary for you to be more than yourself.” [Pg 15]

Therefore, be more than yourself. The world actually wants you to be authentic, to be unconventional, and to create more realities. The difficulties that come your way are there to test you, that you can stick by your beliefs, that you can see your dreams through the completion.

Towards the end of the essay, Okri offers us hope and a challenge. “Don’t wait till you are dead to know that in reality the whole of life is on your side.” [Pg 15]

We don’t have to be caged in other people’s reality. We can choose our reality. We can tailor it to our dreams; modify it to resemble our vision. However, to do that, we must keep our dreams alive, by not suppressing “the poetic into our waking lives.” [Pg 13]

 

Re-reading Old Favourites or Finding New Favourites

 

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There are plenty of good books, but finding books that capture you in a tight grip, and don’t let you go right until the end are rare. I love it when it happens – starting a story, and then simply being obsessed with it; unable to put it down until it’s finished. And feeling a little sad when it does. Some may call it unhealthy or weird to want that kind of obsession, but the readers I am sure will understand. 

It’s about the stories. The stories that transport us to a different world – the world in the pages – in such a powerful way that we are almost deceived we are there. Characters are not merely fiction then, but people we care about. Their lives matter to us. When they laugh, we laugh with them, and when they are hurt, we hurt too. 

I love finding books with that kind of power. But because there are no guarantees, and because it’s rare for that to happen, sometimes when I want that kind of heavy-impact book, instead of risking a new book that I may or may not fall in love with, I return to my old favourites. 

A part of me – the greedy reader who wants to devour every book out there – is aware that by re-reading books, I am missing out on reading something new. But going back to old favourites is like talking to old friends. Yes, the new friends may be exciting because there is so much to discover, but it’s the old friends who know where we come from, and what we’ve been through. Stories are the same. They stay with us from the first time we discover them, and as we change, the impact of the story changes too. 

What about you? 

Do you ever go back to your old favourites? Tell us in the comments below. 

How Reading Influences Positivity

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It dawned on me that any period of reduced reading (there is no such thing as “no reading” period in my life) is also a period of reduced positivity. I’m a pretty optimistic person. I generally prefer to get any wallowing or self-pity out of the way, because I hate being miserable. [Note to the cynics: continuing to feel miserable is a choice – unless you are clinically depressed. It’s an easier choice than making some effort to feel happier, so when I hate being miserable, I do something about it.]

Like any one of you, my life has its problems too. There are times when I am miserable, confused, and have no idea how to move forward. However, what I have noticed that these periods are shorter when I’m reading a lot. It’s no coincidence, and I don’t believe it would apply only to me. Reading consistently – no matter what you like to read – could impact your outlook in life, and make it more positive.

 

4 Ways Reading Influences Positivity

 

Possibilities

One thing that books gives you are possibilities. Whether you are reading fiction or non-fiction, you can read about people who have done great things, risen above their challenges, and found options where none existed.

Values & Morality

When you are tempted to take short-cuts (because we are human, and thus fallible) or do something that is not in alignment with your values, books remind you that your heroes, who are as fallible as you, never do so. And if they do, they always regret it. Books give you the courage to remain steadfast, and not sacrifice the essence of who you are for quick gains.

Inspiration

Reading provides inspiration in spades. Read biographies or memoirs of people you admire, and you can learn from them. You can see that they also had the same 24 hours in a day, and usually no more advantages than you. You can see the choices they made, and how they took their destiny in their own hands instead of waiting for the world to deliver their dreams. Reading inspires you to be whoever you want to be, and gives you the courage to believe that you can.

Pleasure

When you are in a need of a little dose of positivity, the pleasure of getting lost in a story provides you just that. The reading time offers you a window to escape for a little while. There is nothing wrong with that, because when you return, you will come back more hopeful, maybe recharged, and if not with a solution, then at least with more determination. Pleasure should not be underrated. Life is to be lived, to be enjoyed, and books can offer us the pleasure of multitude of lives.

 

Have you felt positive impacts of reading? Share in the comments below. 

Ask the Readers: Which Writers Intrigue You?

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image by Dolly Garland

 

Sometimes, I get curious about certain writers through unusual means. It could be because of reading one of their books, as in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at other times it’s because of what I learn about them or about their work in other sources.

For example, I didn’t really get interested in Virginia Woolf after reading Mrs. Dalloway. To be honest, it didn’t appeal to me all that much. But once I read Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer, which includes considerable commentary on Woolf’s work, I had a fresh interest in Woolf. The interest has only doubled after I read her Writer’s Diary. 

So today, I would like to know which authors intrigue you at the moment? Does this curiosity make you want to explore their works further, or do you want to know more about the author as a person? 

How did you become interested in them?

Share your answers in the comments below, and who knows, perhaps your list will inspire others. 

 

4 Reasons You Should Read Books in Different Languages

 

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image by Dolly Garland

 

Do you read books in different languages? I don’t mean books translated from foreign languages. I mean, actually reading in other languages. 

I think being able to read something in the original language is absolutely the best way to experience any given material. It’s not always possible, but if you are able to do it, you should.

Personally, I love languages. A part of my goal in becoming a polymath is to be able to speak/read/write seven languages fluently. I can do so in three at the moment, and getting a move on with Spanish.

 

Four Reasons You Should Read Books in Foreign Languages

 

1. Reading Improves Language Skills

Once  you get past the basics, reading is hands-down one of the best ways to improve your skills in a foreign language. It doesn’t matter if the only things you can understand are baby books. Start with those. It will give you an instinctive understanding of how that language works, how the sentences are structured, as well as the colloquialism of that particular language. 

Reading can also be used to improve your skills in your native language. You can use it to enhance your vocabulary. (the vocabulary builder in the new Kindle Paperwhites is a good way to use modern technology). 

2. Reading Familiarises You with Another Culture

Read the original material in any language and you will have a snapshot of that entire culture before you. Stories are the backbone of humanity. Stories have been passed down, first through oral traditions, and then in writing from one generation to another. Stories tell us what any society thinks, or finds important, at any given moment in time.

Read the best material available in any culture and you will learn more about that culture in a span of a book, than you will ever learn from watching news. 

3. It Makes You More Knowledgeable/Conversational

Even if you only read fiction, you will still pick more knowledge about all sorts of things than you can imagine. All good stories base their fiction on facts. That means, all good authors do their research, and all the details of the world you see in their books, are based on reality. I’m not saying use it as the ultimate source of truth. However, you can learn a lot from fiction, if you start paying attention to those details, and take them as a starting point.

Here, for example is a picture of the journal spread I made while reading “The Sunday Philosophy Club” by Alexander McCall Smith. This is a map of all the cultural, historical and literary references made in that book. Just imagine the amount of knowledge I would accumulate if I read up on all of those specific things. (I haven’t – but just writing down these references have added to my cultural knowledge). 

The Sunday Philosophy Club

 

4. It Makes You A Better Person (Or gives you an opportunity to be so)

Reading in a foreign language means getting a foreign perspective. Did you know that Winston Churchill who is a hero from British Perspective is actually bit of a villain from an Indian perspective? One man, two views. 

The same thing would apply to Christopher Columbus, who may have discovered new land for the Europeans to get rich on, but who ruined things for the Native Americans. 

Reading those original texts gives you a perspective that broadens your world, and your thoughts. It makes the world more grey, and that can be difficult. But it’s important, because by considering those differences, perhaps you wouldn’t be too quick to make judgements or decisions that may affect lives of others. 

 

Do you read in other languages? Share your answers in the comments below. 

 

 

 

Ask the Readers: Do You Re-Read Books?

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One of the problems loving books is that there is just never enough time to read everything you want. It’s even worse when you also like to re-read books, as I do. 

But even for all the new books out there that I want to devour, I wouldn’t give up re-reading. 

Re-reading serves different purposes. Some books are comfort reading. You know what’s going to happen, you don’t expect to learn anything new, but you re-read because it’s the book that gives you a comfort of familiarity or the company of beloved characters when you need it. 

Another reason for re-reading is to discover things you missed the first time. There are books where you can learn something new every time you read it. 

You can also re-read because some books change their meaning, as you change. The Alchemist was one one of those books for me. The first time I read it, it was an interesting story, but no more. The second time I read it, at a much different point in my life, it was of immense inspiration. 

You can also re-reading just to explore a book, explore words in detail. 

There are also craft/learning reasons. If you are a student, you can re-read to get a better grasp on the material you are trying to learn/understand. As a writer, you can re-read to learn what works and what doesn’t. 

There are as many reasons to re-read as there are people. 

Do you re-read? Why do you do it? Share your reasons, and your favourite re-read books in the comments below. 

5 Ways to Experience Life-Giving Power of Literature

 

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When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.

– Maya Angelou

 

Maya Angelou passed away recently, and left behind a legacy through her literature. This quote above has always resonated with me, because I have been through it. I have experienced it. 

Literature has been my teacher. It has, for a long time, been a way through which I make sense of the world. By literature, I mean both fiction and non-fiction, plays and poetry. I mean, the books I have read, and the stories I have loved, and the characters I have rooted for. 

Literature has life-giving power, because literature is unique bites wrapped in universal themes. Good literature, connects with us on a human level. We can relate to it, whether because of the experiences we’ve had, the emotions we’ve felt, or the dreams we’ve dreamt. This connection tethers us to the world around us. It gives us something to hold on to. It gives us the ultimate hope that every soul needs: you are not alone.

 

Five Ways to Experience the Life-Giving Power of Literature

1. Read Regularly

This is a no-brainer, yet most people don’t do it. They save the reading for an annual summer vacation. You need to read. I’m not saying you need to become book-a-holic (though as far as addictions go, I like this one), but you could make reading a regular part of your life. When you have downtime, instead of always vegetating in front of the TV, open a book some time. 

An average adult with a full-time job, spouse and kids, should at least be able to finish a book a month. That’s mere 12 books a year. If you are doing more, great. But if you are doing less, then start with this simple goal of reading one book per month. 

2. Experiment

You are entitled to read whatever you like. I mean it. But don’t just rule out things before you’ve tried them. If you have always read only thrillers, or only romance novels, or only fantasy – try something else. For every 5 fantasy (or your preferred genre) books, read 1 book from another genre, or a play, a book of poems, or even a non-fiction. Broaden your horizons. Become an eclectic reader. 

There are good stories being told in countless ways, in nearly every different area. Sometimes, you learn more by visiting foreign lands, and the same thing applies to reading books that are foreign to you. 

The key to experimenting successfully is to start with tried and tested. When you try a new genre, go with the best in that field, so that even if you don’t like it, you know you tried with good quality material, as opposed to some random trash that even lovers of that genre don’t read. 

It shouldn’t need to be said, but I will say it anyway: don’t just give up after one try. If you tried horror and absolutely hated it, fine. Pass. But then try another genre. Don’t return to your cocoon of fantasy after one tiny step out of Hogwarts or Middle Earth. 

3. Talk About Books 

Reading books is great, but when you get to discuss them with like-minded people, it is both a pleasure and an activity for broadening your mind. Did they get the same thing as you from a particular book? Or was their experience different?

Was it different because you both lead a different life? Are you able to see from their perspective or you have no idea how could they have possibly found Frodo endearing? 

Discussing books is a way to mine deeper into the material. If you don’t know anyone who likes talking about books, that’s not even an issue these days, because you can join in online discussions forums. Go on somewhere like Goodreads, and you will find plenty of people who share the same taste in books as you do.

4. Keep A Reading Journal

Keeping a reading journal is about connecting deeper with your reading. Do you read books, and just forget about them? Or do you like something, but are you at a loss to  figure out what you liked, or why certain character appealed to you? Or perhaps you just want to remember the name of the book you read, or the author, or  your favourite character. 

A reading journal helps you do all that and more. Keeping a reading journal is like having a book club by yourself. You can keep track of your reading, your changing taste in material, and your ability to discover personal meaning through texts. You can also use it for scholarly pursuits of dissecting and analysing texts. 

5. Create/Participate in A Reading Challenge

Reading challenges help, because you have a target. There are all sorts of challenges online. Or you can just create your own. Whether you want a challenge of reading 12 books in 12 months, or a genre challenge…whatever it is, you could use it as a way to consciously become a better reader.

Follow above five steps regularly, or even some of them, and you will begin to feel the life-giving power of literature. 

 

 

Reading As A Social Activity

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 image by pedrosimoes7

 

These days, we see reading as an isolated activity. You take a book, retire to your reading nook, and don’t come out for hours. That’s how we see reading. But that’s not entirely true, and it wasn’t always the case.

In 18th century particularly, reading was a social activity, and an important one at that. As periodicals flourished, coffee houses became the places where people would read these periodicals and discuss them with each other. For women (as respectable women didn’t really have a public place for such things) it would be at the home, whether at breakfast table, or in the drawing room. Reading was both a social and a family activity. 

You would read something, perhaps even read it out loud so that everyone can hear it, and then you would exchange your views on it. It stimulated intellectual conversations. It was an age of enlightenment, when self-improvement was a prevalent idea. 

Margaret J. M. Ezell said in her essay, Mr. Spectator on Readers and the Conspicuous Consumption of Literature: 

“…Mr. Spectator’s insistence on the public performance of reading in a social environment, whether that setting is a coffee house or a family dining room, which ties it to the older tradition of social authorship. Whether in fact his actual readers did indeed discuss its contents over breakfast, the type of reading he imagines for this format is based on the model of friends circulating manuscripts for other  friends to read, to respond to, to correct, to transcribe and re-circulate texts, an ongoing participatory mode of reading, where all readers are also writers and are also actively involved in the production and distribution of new texts.” [1]

“Compare this to modern patterns of reading. Librarians rigorously enforce the practice of silent, isolated reading practices and panic at the mention of food and drink anywhere near a text; parents insist their children be undistracted while reading and reading at the table is positively anti-social and anti-family; adults read aloud in groups only to those who we feel cannot do so silently for themselves, such as children. Alternatively, we happily pay to sit silently while a professional performer on a stage reads aloud Shakespeare’s sonnets, pretends to be Mark Twain, presents correspondence from famous authors, or monologues from body parts, and we feel no need to respond to the reader or the text until we are safely out of the performance space. Indeed, we are rather alarmed when people who aren’t professional performers don’t read silently in public places: strangers reading aloud or sharing their opinions about their reading marks them as eccentric, ironically, asocial. Likewise, we can use our book or newspaper to ensure a solitary, silent space for ourselves in public when we wish to avoid conversation with another person sitting near us on the subway or in the waiting room. Reading for us functions as a means of creating solitude and passive silence, even in a crowded public space, the antithesis of the reading practices imagined by Mr. Spectator and his creator.” [2]

Yet, we haven’t completely forgotten that reading can be a social activity. Book clubs are an evidence of that. The problem is we’ve been out of the habit of seeing reading as a social activity. In most households, entire families don’t read. If you wanted to read the newspaper out loud at the breakfast table, one of your family members would probably tell you to read quietly. It’s the attitude towards reading we need to change. We need to see that reading can still contribute to our intellectual stimulation, and to the betterment of our social lives, that it can elevate the level of conversations and thinking. Reading can be the best of both world – an ideal solitary retreat, and an engaging social activity. 

 

Sources:

  1. Page 4, Mr. Spectator on Readers and the Conspicuous Consumption of Literature, Literature Compass 1 (2003) 18C 014, Margaret J. M. Ezell
  2. Page 5, Mr Spectator on Readers and the Conspicuous Consumption of Literature, Literature Compass 1 (2003) 18C 014, Margaret J. M. Ezell