I read a blog post this morning at Crossing the Brandywine, about a shared habit among many who follow the Ambleside Online / Charlotte Mason practice of keeping a Commonplace Book, or what’s lately being called Keeping.
In short, the wisdom of Miss Mason, an early 20th century educator, once again proves to be timeless (classical), relevant (useful), and enriching (formative) for those individuals who make the effort to simply write things down as a habit of daily life.
These things written down are more often than not quotes from one’s daily reading: poetry, literature, biography, science, the Bible or other books considered holy by different faiths, even magazine articles.
And when I say that Miss Mason’s wisdom concerning the practice of Keeping is timeless, relevant, and enriching, this is true not only for the community of parents (okay, mostly moms) following, teaching, and otherwise living out her philosophy of education – it’s true for others as well. I point to Sir Richard Branson as a prime example.
Many resources easily found online describe how Sir Richard relies on a simple notebook in which he writes down everything. He’s a copious note-taker, and even blogs about how to get started making your own notebook / list.
Of course, we could also give credit to Leonardo da Vinci, another prolific Notebooker. But he did not have the option to digitize his thoughts. Sir Richard does, and still prefers – indeed, encourages us – to use the old-fashioned notebook.
Not that I recommend doing something just because Sir Richard says I should, despite the fact that he’s clearly a smart guy. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s setting a terrific example for everyone by making this simple act of putting pen to paper (not typing or speaking or dictating or filming or screen-touching) a daily habit.
Back to Amy’s blog post this morning. She mentions that she can look at her commonplace book and quickly see what she calls the “uncannily accurate thermometer” of her life. If there are plenty of entries, she’s usually in balance, taking in plenty of literary food. If her entries are sparse or missing altogether, she’s tired, not reading enough.
This observation – so simple and honest – resonates with me. I’ve been a keeper of quotes, passages, observations, poems and Scripture for years. And years. And when I look back through old notebooks, I can see entire chunks of time that are just…not there.
What was I doing? Why wasn’t I writing anything down? I can’t blame writer’s block – most of what I write in my own notebook isn’t original. Illness? Adventure? Travel? Birthing babies? A little of all that, I suppose.
Whatever the reason, I think Amy’s right on with her observations. When I’m not writing, I’m usually not reading enough.
Or I’m not reading the right books.
To wit: I just finished Daniel Silva’s fourth book in his Gabriel Allon series, and I’m a bit disappointed.
His character development was promising, and his writing definitely progressed in terms of the filth factor (his first book was way too heavy in the romance and language departments for my taste), but at the same time he’s fallen prey to a heavy editorial hand.
I resent reading the exact same sentence from one book to the next in the rush to acquaint new readers with the characters.
Really – editors, take note – if you are lazy enough to lift a passage from the last bestseller in order to engage a new reader who hasn’t bothered to read the entire series in order, you need to reprioritize why you got into this business in the first place.
Readers do care about the details, and we hate having to wait for the rest of the class to catch up, so to speak. Let the writer speak to his readers.
I’m not sure whether I’ll continue with this series, even though I am drawn to the genre (spy fiction) and the subtext of this series (he’s an Israeli agent who doubles as an art restorer in Europe). It’s not too often that I run across fast-paced international intrigue that also indulges my love for art history.
As I have respect for Dr. Grant’s opinion (he’s a well-known voice in the world of Classical education), and I’d already read a spattering from some of the writers on the list (Umberto Eco and Paul Johnson are two favorites, who share space with Jan Karon, another wonderful writer), I decided to read Silva’s works in the order in which he wrote them.
That said, the jury’s still out. I’m only six novels in; I’ll keep you posted.
I sort of got off topic, which happens. A lot. Sorry.
But I wanted to bring attention to Amy’s thoughts about Keeping, and how we can gauge our lives by what we’re ingesting on a daily basis. What goes in is what makes us grow, function, contribute, influence…or fall completely apart due to lack of nutrition.
Because what goes in is going to come back out somehow, whether in our thoughts, words, and / or actions, or our lack thereof. I suppose inertia claims its fair share of well-intentioned victims.
I know that I’m better when I’m reading widely and habitually. My latest reads are listed on this blog, and while I’ve intended to keep them updated, I’ve quite neglected it. Hard to believe, I know.
I’ve also meant to add a menu featuring the books I read with my children for school. Although I suppose if I wrote it down on my to-do list in my notebook, I’d remember to do it.
One of our favorites this year is Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels.*
Halliburton (a Tennessee native) became famous for essentially creating ‘adventure journalism’ in the 1920’s and 30’s. A world traveler, he offers concise but poetic accounts of his adventures in both the Occident and the Orient.
His writing betrays a brilliant mind and a keen sense of adventure – he swam the Panama Canal, among other wild and eccentric feats. Lost at sea in an attempt to sail a Chinese junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1939, Halliburton remains, at least for us, a living voice, gifted with an eccentric but thoroughly engaging style of storytelling. I highly recommend him to both young and old.
Our other favorite this year is Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known,* a book that places Seton among the very best writers of nature and wild animals. (Is there a proper genre for this of which I am ignorant?)
While my husband read the story of Lobo to us a few winters ago, we still got teary during our re-reading of that tragic narrative. Still, we really love the rest of these stories about quick-witted rabbits, cunning foxes, and faithful dogs.
Although we still get teary at each tale’s end – as Seton tells us, “No wild animal dies of old age. Its life has soon or late a tragic end. It is only a question of how long it can hold out against its foes.”
We are leaving off of school (except for math!) during the next few weeks due to our move. This is a relief to us in some ways, as officially taking time off from school gives us the option to focus 100% on what promises to be a lot of work.
But we also get a little unsettled when we aren’t in school.
The rhythm of our day, the comfort of reading together the stories of wild animals, eccentric globetrotters, doomed Danish princes, and Lewis and Clark, among others – well, it’s that we enjoy and grow from our time in school far more than we enjoy and grow in our time away from it.
And that is something worth writing down in my notebook today…
*link is from Ambleside Online affiliate link to Amazon.