day eight: commonplace book

January 8, 2017 @ 12:26 am | Filed under:


Yesterday I picked up one of my cleaning-spree finds: Nick Hornby’s Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt. Just the thing to reset my brain after Cybils reading, I thought. Hornby’s what-I’m-reading essay collections were hugely important to my reading life several years back. He was writing monthly columns about his own reading life—not reviews, but meditations and meanderings, an ongoing conversation with the books he was immersed in each month. Those essays, originally published in Believer magazine and then bundled into several print collections, struck me as wittier, more deliberate versions of the kind of book-notes I’d been casually posting here on the blog for some time. I learned pretty early in my blogging career that I don’t enjoy writing formal book reviews (worrying, as I do, that I’ll wind up at dinner someday with the author of something I gave an unfavorable review to)—what I like is having conversations about books as I’m reading them. It’s during the reading that I’m burning to talk about what’s on the page. After I finish a book, I want to cocoon with it a bit, and finding words for it feels like work.

So as I said, I had more or less figured that out within a year of blogging, and I decided to think of what I was doing here as discussing rather than reviewing—sharing my enthusiasm, thinking out loud, capturing what thoughts the book put in my head while I was reading it.

When, in March 2009, I discovered that Nick Hornby was doing something similar (albeit in a more substantive, organized fashion) in his Believer essays, I felt my own thoughts come into focus. To chronicle one’s reading life—now there’s an activity that excites me. Ms. Mental Multivitamin, then as now one of my favorite bloggers (she posts these days at Nerdishly), had been doing exactly that at M-mv for longer than I’d been blogging (and probably since before Hornby’s essay series began).

(Thinking back, it’s likely I heard about the Hornby essays from Ms. M-mv in the first place.)



When I picked up Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt yesterday, my first reaction was to chuckle over the memory of what happened when I first posted a picture of it here in April, 2009. I presented the photo as evidence of Scott’s thoughtfulness—the book appeared on our bed not long after I’d mused aloud about wanting it—and a few commenters politely wondered if my husband might perhaps be going round the bend.

Q: “Was it a hint that the house was messy, was it exactly what you wanted, or was it a way of saying it’s ok honey, I love the house just the way it is?”

Huck would have been three months old at the time, and I imagine if a book about actual housekeeping had appeared, unsolicited, on our (unmade) bed as a sort of hint that it was time to tidy things up, said book might have hit a nearby wall…or head. 😉 But that would have required an entirely different kind of book, and an altogether different sort of husband.

And so whenever I come across Housekeeping Vs. the Dirt, I chuckle over the critical importance of context. Hornby’s title, of course, refers to two of the books he discusses in the volume.


And here we get to why I love to read the book-musings of other readers: because writers like Nick Hornby and Helene Hanff (O my beloved) don’t just write about the books; they write about relationship. The relationships they form with books. The ways their mental and emotional landscapes are altered by those books. There are personal connections and anecdotes; the books become a part of the reader’s history, shaping new narratives. All the books on my shelves have stories behind them, not just inside them. When I hold a volume, I’m remembering not only its contents, but where it came from and what was happening the first time I read it. Our old books, the ones we’ve hauled from house to house, state to state (uneconomically, sentimentally), contain multiple stories—their own, our family’s, and sometimes, if they came to us used, the stories of previous owners. Like Billy Collins, I’m entranced by the narratives we find in the margins:

…the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil —
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet —
“Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”

—excerpt from “Marginalia”

When I pick up Hornby’s Housekeeping, I find it holds a piece of the congenial, bookish blog community I’ve enjoyed for so many years; and a memory of the happy jolt I felt when Scott surprised me with it; and the reading jags I went on because of Hornby’s recommendations; and the pleasure of curling up with those books while my last infant slept on the (unmade) bed beside me, in a room that existed in a state somewhere between housekeeping and the dirt.


All these associations rushed upon me before I’d even opened the book to page one this afternoon. I hit the Preface (page 11, technically) and felt immediately compelled to open the laptop and click New Post.

“I began writing this column,” Hornby writes,

“in the summer of 2003. It seemed to me that what I had chosen to read in the preceding few weeks contained a narrative, of sorts—that one book led to another, and thus themes and patterns emerged, patterns that might be worth looking at. And of course, that was pretty much the last time my reading had any kind of logic or shape to it. Ever since then my choice of books has been haphazard, whimsical, and entirely shapeless.”

You see why I love him.

“It still seemed like a fun thing to do, though, writing about reading, as opposed to writing about individual books. At the beginning of my writing career I reviewed a lot of fiction, but I had to pretend, as reviewers do, that I had read the books outside of space, time, and self—in other words, I had to pretend that I hadn’t read them when I was tired and grumpy, or drunk, that I wasn’t envious of the author, that I had no agenda, no personal aesthetic or personal taste or personal problems, that I hadn’t read other reviews of the same book already, that I didn’t know who the author’s friends and enemies were, that I wasn’t trying to place a book with the same publisher, that I hadn’t been bought lunch by the book’s doe-eyed publicist….”

“But this column was going to be different. Yes, I would be paid for it, but I would be paid to write about what I would have done anyway, which was read the books I wanted to read. And if I felt that mood, morale, concentration levels, weather, or family history had affected my relationship with a book, I could and would say so.”

Which is exactly what brings me back to these essays, time and again. And to other chroniclers of the reading life. Give me your moods, your weather, your family history, your ‘tired or grumpy or drunk.’ Give me the reader as well as the book. In the end, that’s my favorite genre, whatever it’s called.

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8 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Penny says:

    I just started keeping a commonplace book last year – it has rocked my world. I love it.

  2. Jen says:

    I love reviewing books! I know I won’t end up meeting the author so that makes it easier. 😉 I have such a limited book budget that I like being able to sway someone to the library if the book is just so-so. There are so many books out there that I relish being able to steer people towards the best of the best. Or maybe my review hating something makes it clear that they will love it. Either way I feel like it’s a good way to share my speed reading super power.

  3. Melanie Bettinelli says:

    Oh I love this so much. Writing about relationships with books. It’s such a Charlotte Mason-ish idea, that centrality of forming relationships, that’s why I love Charlotte so.

    I remember thinking back when that I needed that Hornby book but I never did get around to getting it. Maybe time to bump it up my wish list?

    I think this is what I love about blogging about books, recording the ways books bump up against each other and the way they strike me. I bounce back and forth a little more between more formal review-ish writing and even literary analysis and the more personal relationship stuff. I’m never exactly sure why some books demand one kind of treatment and others demand a different treatment, but maybe that too is about relationships. Some books make me want to put on my reviewer hat: this is so good and this is why you should read it! (Or this is such a sad disappointment and I need to figure out exactly why that is). Some books demand my critic hat, they send me back to school and I find I want to write the kind of essays I wrote when getting my degree, proving that it wasn’t just a period of my life that is now closed, but that that particular flavor of thinking about books has put down deep roots and become a part of how I read and think too. But it is delicious too to just write about the moods, the weather, the family history, the tired or grumpy or drunk or giddy with excitement.

  4. Melissa Wiley says:

    Ah yes, Melanie, literary analysis belongs in this discussion to, and is something I dearly enjoy! I think it happens more orally for me these days because of teaching. My students write a lot of it… 🙂 But I most enjoy our discussions, teasing out all the threads…

  5. selvi says:

    I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed those Hornby books. I’m sure I found out about them here. I need to read them again, both for their own sake and to get more reading ideas. I’m having trouble finding things that I want to read all the way through these days, at least fiction. Fiction has always been my drug of choice, and I don’t know whether I’m changing so that I no longer use it the same way, or if my tastes are evolving, or (scary thought) my use of technology is eroding my sensibilities. Is it a problem of finding the right books, or is there something else happening? I’m not sure. I am enjoying memoir and personal essays, so there is a life raft. But for one reason or another, Hornby might do the trick.

  6. Karen Edmisten says:

    Oh, my, yes, just a huge yes to this whole post.