Our Virtual Commonplace Book

commonplace:  noun, Archaic. A place or passage in a book or writing
noted as important for reference or quotation.

Findings from Our Work and Reading


A Man of Letters

Mark Twain is the subject of a new "forever" stamp to be issued by the Postal Service on June 25th.

If I ever mail anything again, I'll be sure to use one!


Weight and Consequence

I’m a third of the way through the monumental novel A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles. I’ve just learned that Sayles’s new film, Amigo, is due out in August. It shares the novel’s subject matter—the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century. (Parallels to the present day, anyone?) Here’s the trailer:

A Moment in the Sun is completely worthy of the commitment to its nearly one thousand pages, and this extract about the seemingly mundane act of setting type for a newspaper should offer a clue as to why:

Here we scribe truth in hot lead.

            The phrase makes Milsap smile as he sits at the machine, compositing the front page of the morning edition. . . .

            . . . Milsap’s fingers fly over the keys, brass and steel rattling into the assembler box and molten metal flowing down to make the slugs. He did it by hand in what they’re already calling the old days, building sentences a letter at a time with a dozen other setters in the room. Mr. Clawson got the Model 1 five years ago and Milsap is the only one left who can look into the machine and savor its intricate beauty, the interplay of belts and blocks, gears and wheels, the way it cycles the matrices back into the distributor, every letter into its distinct channel, drink in the thick, hot-metal smell of it. And he is the only one who can glance at a piece of copy, even something scrawled with hasty hand, and see it in solid block columns before his fingers touch the keyboard, edit the wording on the fly without resorting to awkward hyphens or loose lines for his justification. There are no orphans or widows dangling from Milsap’s paragraphs. He understands better than anybody that words are not sounds made of air but solid objects, with weight and consequence. (pages 225-226)


Her First Thought Every Morning

Love and Summer by William Trevor


William Trevor is one of the wisest writers about human nature, with only Alice Munro as his close competitor. In a simple style, he describes the thoughts and actions of everyday people in a way that makes their struggles seem both noble and tragic.

An excerpt:

He would go and that he was gone would be her first thought every morning, as her first thought now was that he was here. She would open her eyes and see the pink washed walls as she saw them now, the sacred picture above the empty grate, her clothes on the chair in the window. He would be gone, as the dead are gone, and that would be there all day, in the kitchen and in the yard, when she brought in anthracite for the Rayburn, when she scalded the churns, when she fed the hens and stacked the turf. It would be there in the fields, and with her when she stood with her eggs waiting for the presbytery hall door to open, and while Miss Connulty counted out her coins and the man with the deaf-aid looked for insulation guards or udder pads. It would be there while she lay down beside the husband she had married, and while she made his food and cut his bread, and while the old-time music played. (pages 136-137)


The World at a Glance

I just finished editing the English translation of Hak Choi’s memoir of his famous (in Korea) grandfather “Yuktang” Ch’oe Nam-sŏn, the writer of the Korean Declaration of Independence and a pioneering Korean historian, writer, and publisher in the first half of the twentieth century.

My favorite facts about Yuktang are that he named his library, which contained tens of thousands of books, Illamgak, which is Korean for “a place where the world can be seen at a glance,” and that he wrote a poem in honor of his book collection after it was destroyed by American bombing during the Korean War. Here are some excerpts of his sijo (Korean verse form), translated into English by Kim Choi:

Ten years ago I tried my best to hide it from harm,
Only to prepare its burial ground ten years later.
I can but chuckle at how all my toils turn to naught.

In lieu of wine and flowers, you were my constant companion.
With you I took refuge from my sorrows and shared my joys.
Together we had many good times, so let’s see how we fare apart.

.   .   .   .   .   .   .

Both the bailiffs and communists came to claim it.
It is funny how they thought to claim it as their own.
Now the true owner has shown itself, the napalm bomb.

Every piece of paper, every letter, I gathered with my soul.
Now they are all gone in flames, but their spirits remain.
One by one, they live on, untouched, in my memory.

A hundred ingredients I gathered to make one terrific soup.
Before I could drop them in the pot, they have turned into ash.
Alas! I have dreamt a long dream that lasted all my life.

I’m hoping that My Grandfather Yuktang Ch’oe Nam-son: Building a Foundation for Korean Modernity soon finds an American publisher, so that many readers can discover the revelations about East Asian history that I did while editing this wonderful book.


[A listing for the Korean Edition of the book can be seen here.]


Invented by Spies

Another bite from John Sayles’ A Moment in the Sun:

Carnaval was invented by spies. There is no other explanation — an entire week when one is allowed, no, expected, to traverse the city behind a mask, one among the thousands of dizfrazados, black and white, rich and poor, attending gilded balls or singing in processions or just noisily decorating the streets of La Habana. The gaslights are on now, the breeze blowing ever so slightly out into the Harbor as Quiroga strolls along the Malecón. It is a calm night, waves caressing rather than assaulting the sea wall, and the few lights left burning on the big ships anchored not so far away rise and fall in a gentle rhythm. Quiroga wears a simple domino and his dress suit, only a lector de fábrica down from Florida for the holiday. Nobody to worry about. There is tension, yes, and he heard footsteps behind when he left the hotel this morning, but with so much life on the street, so many crowds to lose himself to, Quiroga is certain that his sombra has been lost as well. (page 81)

[And by the end of the chapter: Remember the Maine. . .]