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The Word Collector
Curating a Commonplace Book
My posts fall into two categories. Curiosities are short pieces on random topics in that strike my fancy. Unsettled is the unfolding tale told in longer (but not too long) pieces. I’ll alternate the two categories, posting one every other week.
The Word Collector
I’m a collector of words—other people’s words. Some might call this practice eavesdropping, which is tacky, or plagiarism, which is a crime. It’s neither, and here’s why. I write down what I’ve heard, or read—word for word—in a commonplace book. I carefully transcribe the who, what, when and where of these pithy specimens. It is in this writing-down, what I call collecting words, that elevates me above the eavesdropper, and way above the criminal.
Don’t confuse a commonplace book for a diary, which most times makes for a boring read. Unless its author is Anne Frank. Journal writing, on the other hand, is more reflective, more akin to storytelling such as in Jack Kerouac’s popular journal-become-book On the Road.
Think of a commonplace book as an anthology of things that you find fascinating or profound. Things like quotations, long or short, or a clever turn of phrase. Maybe its a funny poem, or something that touches your heart. Now and then, I’ll leaf through the pages of my commonplace book, stopping to study a clipping, or to reflect on the time I collected this or that word. I get a little boost knowing I’m following the centuries-old tradition set by Seneca and Cicero, Greek philosophers who belonged to groups known as “loci communes,” Latin for “commonplaces.” Thomas Jefferson kept one, and so did Ronald Regan (although his were notecards).
A Few Finds
“officious twit,” Woman describing a self-important volunteer, overheard at a coffee shop, Las Cruces, NM, 1994.
“Hold your taters, Rhonda. Lands!” Red-faced man’s response to his wife who wants him to hurry up. Overheard in a card shop, Minneapolis, MN, Feb. 18, 1998.
“…fellow glared at me, his eyes enormous, intense, half demented…” “My Friend Debris” in The Best of Edward Abbey.
“Five pounds is a pleat,” Saleswoman’s remark about why my slacks are too tight, Dillards Department Store, Las Cruces, NM,1997.
“God made this park—or Jesus, whatever.” Three-year old expressing gratitude for the new playground. Ruidoso, NM, 2002.
“We’re not doing heroes; we’re doing history.” On the controversy surrounding his sculpture of Juan de Onate.” Sculptor Allan Houser, “Albuquerque Journal,” Jan. 1, 2004.
“I am a man who would rather beg than steal.” Black man standing by a freeway entrance holding a cardboard sign. Unknown highway, Feb. 1998.
“It’s too late for oral history.” Woman’s comment during a program featuring a 93-year-old resident who was scheduled to tell stories, but couldn’t remember a thing. Las Cruces, NM, May 10, 2003.
“I do not want to be trustworthy, and safe and discreet,” she thinks to herself. “I do not want to be the one who understands and sympathizes and soothes. I do not want to be reliable.” Kitty Maule’s character in Providence by Anita Brookner.
“I don’t want to tell you how to create a commonplace book because it feels like homework. I do not want to be responsible.” On finishing a short piece about her commonplace book. Linda G. Harris, Albuquerque, NM 2023.
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