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Common Books

I had never appreciated John Updike until about a year ago when a story called “Outage” appeared in The New Yorker (1/7/08). I was impressed enough by the story and the clarity of the prose to transcribe a paragraph into my common book (of quotations). I am sure this story will be anthologized very soon as all of Updike’s formidable oeuvre is going into reprint. My local B& N was sold out completely the other day except for one hardback copy of “The Witches of Eastwick.” I will dedicate my class this week to this fine American writer. It was the transcription of one luminous paragraph that led me further into Updike’s work.

The origin of the common book is obscure. (If anyone’s research yields an answer, please comment here.) I first heard about it when I lived in England and began to keep one there. I now have several filled with quotations from books I have read. The quotations are often paragraphs and pages I have admired as writing, a kind of tracing of the writer’s mind as I transpose his or her own words into my notebook. And I also use the quotations as source if I am working on an essay, say, that requires a quote to give it universality and gravitas.

I think it was Anne Fadiman in her charming book about books, ”Ex Libris,” who said that when she finishes a book, she photocopies the paragraphs and pages she has enjoyed and admired and then pastes them into her common book. I do the same, but only if the passage is too long to transcribe by hand. That slows me down and keeps me away from the computer.

One way or another beautiful, well wrought words, thoughts, modes of expression are “copied” into my common book so that I can possess them and return to them easily.


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