Social Media and the 21st Century Commonplace Book

Commonplace book
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Commonplace book
“Commonplace book” from flickr user vlasta2

In the midst of my recent move to Central Florida, I made some drastic decisions: my wife and I decided to move to our new home with only what we could fit in two cars. I had to sell almost all of my books, and kept only a few reference books and some books I had already started reading.

Then, for the week before we moved, we cut out our internet at home and sold our TV. I was left with only the books on my Kindle and a notebook for entertainment. So I started reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s lengthy Lincoln biography Team of Rivals. Goodwin’s thorough research and ability to tell a story keeps me hooked, but more importantly it reveals how socially connected Lincoln’s world was, even in the midst of war.

What’s most interesting about Goodwin’s book is her use of letters and diary entries to get a sense of what it was like in the moment. Most of her narrative takes place in the paces of letters sent from Lincoln’s closest friends and political colleagues. We learn about some of Lincoln’s greatest achievements from letters from Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward to his wife Fanny. We also learn how Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon Chase, depended on letters to and from his daughter Kate to keep sane during the war and to refine social and political ideals.

The social connections through print in this era shows that our modern sense of “social media” isn’t that unique after all. The tools we use to communicate have changed, but the idea of sharing our ideas to those closest to us hasn’t.

Another aspect of 19th Century written communication is the commonplace book. These notebooks were like personal diaries, but they were written for a small audience of friends and family and passed around to be read by others. Writer Tom Standage recently covered commonplace books in his article “How commonplace books were like Tumblr and Pinterest.” According to Standage, these books conveyed the writer’s ideas and thoughts:

People would sometimes lend their commonplace books or miscellanies to their friends, who could then page through the entries and copy anything of interest into their own books. The similarities and overlaps between several manuscript collections compiled at Oxford University indicate widespread sharing of both individual texts and entire collections among students and their tutors, for example. Like internet users setting up blogs or social-media profiles for the first time, compilers of commonplace books seem to have relished the opportunities their newfound literacy gave them for projecting a particular image of themselves to their peers.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century that the personal diary became truly personal and only read by close relatives, if anyone. And reading was both a personal act and one people shared with others; it was not meant for personal fulfillment only.

With this 19th Century perspective on the role of reading and writing in mind, the role of the 21st Century blogger, particularly the book blogger, takes on a new social importance. (Well, at least it does to me.) Sites like Twitter and Pinterest, which help readers share clippings, brief thoughts, and other ephemera, give anyone the opportunity to share and build audiences of close intimate readers.

While some aspects of 19th Century “social media” are lost on today’s audiences, the idea of social reading and social media are alive today. The tools we have today give us even more ability to share and communicate. Over time, we will refine these technologies, but for now, the idea of sharing is alive and well.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website,