On commonplace books and 18th century literature

Since the next few books–The Savage Detectives and 2666–are going to take me a little longer to get through, I thought I would intersperse them with a few things besides book reviews.

When I was younger I was very set in my ways about what I read. While my reading covered a lot of topics (various kinds of fiction, several historical periods, poetry), when I had a bad experience with a book, I would dismiss it out of hand and not give anything similar another chance. For example, I thought that anything written pre-1800 and post-1560s was boring.

When I started college, I was frustrated with most of the entry-level English literature courses that I took. A lot of them covered books I’d already read, so not only was I annoyed that I wasn’t learning anything new, but the professors were trying to cover too much material in too short of a time, and it was never enough to hold my interest, the way that the books were taught. It wasn’t until some of the upper level courses that I really started to enjoy myself.

But the real turning point for me, at least in regard to being more open-minded about certain periods of literature that I neglected, was a course that I took with Professor Olmert in my sophomore or junior year (I can’t remember which one unfortunately). Originally, I’d only signed up for the course–British Literature from 1688 to 1800–because it was an upper level course that fit in with the rest of my schedule, and I remember dreading it, absolutely sure that in no way would I enjoy this boring period of writing. Of course I would end up eating my words.

I’m not sure if it was because Professor Olmert’s enthusiasm for all things history-related was so infectious, because I had reached a point in my life where I was more receptive to holding back my judgments and trying new things, or the style of teaching encouraged discussion and tapped into my love of history, which made reading the literature more immediate and enjoyable, but I ended up loving the class and almost everything that we read in it. If you had asked me a year before that if I would have enjoyed Tristram Shandy I would probably have laughed in your face. And here I was, reading it, enjoying it, and then actually going on to seek out more works in this period than we covered in the class… and some of those authors, Fanny Burney included, rank among my favorites. A whole new world of wonderful books that I would have passed over as “boring,” now unlocked. Since then, I’ve tried not to make the same mistake in assumptions about certain periods of writing.

Professor Olmert also encouraged us to keep commonplace books, scrapbooks of interesting articles we’d read or quotes we’d encountered, a way to compile all of the interesting, random little tidbits that made up our intellectual lives, a practice that I have tried (sporadically, but constantly) to keep up since those classes.

So for those things, at least, I am incredibly thankful–while college might not have been the experience I thought it was going to be, I took some important things away from it, at least.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Thoughts

2 responses to “On commonplace books and 18th century literature

  1. Yay for commonplace books! One of the profs in my department had his students keep one and he said every semester at least one said they’d keep it going. How popular were they in that class?

    Also, I know what you mean about thinking certain periods were boring–it’s only now that I’m reading a book published in 1671 that I’m becoming more receptive to the idea of literature prior to 1800. Oh boy, a whole new giant set of books to choose from!

    • I don’t think a lot of people did them, actually. I had a lot of fun with mine though.

      If you want some recommendations from that time period I could definitely give you some–it’s one of my favorites now.

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