“Writing is such an inescapable part of literate culture, such an ordinary part of communal aspiration, that a writer should not much pride himself on his precious volumes. Even if he is the most radical of thinkers, someone who desires to tear his culture down and build it again from the bottom up, society—American society, anyhow—can turn to him and say, ‘Yes, but the reason you were educated was to enable you to think precisely these thoughts.’ ”
—Fred Chappell, “Welcome to High Culture,” Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry
“There are some things we learn in order to know them and some things we learn in order to live with them. If you wish to learn how to drive a car safely or how to manufacture hydrochloric acid, then it will be better not to turn to books of poetry for instruction. But if you wish to know or to remember how it feels still to be in love with a person who has done you most dreadful wrong and to serach desperately for a way to forgive that person so you can go on loving, then Facts on File is no help, nor the IBM PC Computer Operator’s Manual. We need to learn, probably, the basic skills of driving automoblies only once; the other lesson, how to feel and behave in a difficult love affair, we must learn again and again. Then we turn to poetry.”
—Fred Chappell, “The Function of the Poet,” Plow Naked: Selected Writings on Poetry
George Eliot on marriage:
Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic—the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.
—Middlemarch, chapter 87, by George Eliot
In this passage from Middlemarch, Caleb Garth is talking to young Fred Vincy about choosing a vocation. Reading it today, I was struck by how much it speaks to parenthood and keeping house as well.
“You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There’s this and there’s that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn’t give twopence for him”—here Caleb’s mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers—”whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do.”
—Middlemarch, chapter 56, by George Eliot
“So what’s with the copywork? Do you mark passages during the week and save them up? Is this something you’ve been doing for a while, or is it a new practice?”
Good questions. Over the years I have made many attempts to collect intriguing or inspiring quotes from my reading in various notebooks. Creamy-paged blank books with lovely covers; cheap, functional spiral notebooks; mottled black-and-white composition books; you name it, I’ve tried it. Jefferson did it, Milton did it; “commonplace books,” for recording passages from one’s reading and notes about what one has learned from the reading, have been around a long time.
But my attempts to maintain one have always failed for one reason: I hate to write by hand. It hurts my wrist; it always has. Perhaps I have a faulty pencil-grip. Perhaps I press too hard. Whatever the reason, I have never found it easy to write more than a few short lines on paper. A thank-you note with my perfectly wonderful fountain pen, a gift from my indulgent mama and daddy—that much I can manage. But a long Charlotte Mason quote? Forget it.
My writing hero, the great Fred Chappell, used to scoff at poets who would let a typewriter come between themselves and the words. On this point I must respectfully disagree with my esteemed mentor. I would never have completed a short story—much less a novel or ten—without the help of my trusty computer.
Many people have begun to use blogs as a form of commonplace book, a place for collecting passages we want to remember and for organizing our thoughts about the reading. What I do now is stick a large Post-it in the back of each book I’m reading. During the week I jot down page numbers on it for the passages I wish to record. Then, when I have a chance on the weekend, I can type them up all at once. I’ve been keeping a file of such quotes for myself, but recently it struck me that it would be fun to share them here, where I might have the pleasure of hearing others’ thoughts about the ideas expressed. And I am delighted to report that it worked: already one reader has chimed in with more food for thought. (Thoughts I’ve been chewing on all night—thanks, Ann—I’ll respond in the comments thread.)
Please do add your thoughts to the copywork discussions as they unfold!
Passages that jumped out at me from this week’s reading:
From Charlotte Mason’s A PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION (which I was inspired to re-read by a train of thought related to the Tidal Homeschooling posts):
“If we ask in perplexity, why do so many men and women seem incapable of generous impulse, of reasoned patriotism, of seeing beyond the circle of their own interests, is not the answer, that men are enabled for such things by education? These are the marks of educated persons; and when millions of men who should be the backbone of the country seem to be dead to public claims, we have to ask,—Why then are not these persons educated, and what have we given them in lieu of education?”
—Introduction, p. 1
“I inferred that one of these [desires], the Desire of Knowledge (Curiosity) was the chief instrument of education; that this desire might be paralysed or made powerless like an unused limb by encouraging other desires to intervene between a child and the knowledge proper for him; the desire for place,—emulation; for prizes,—avarice; for power,—ambition; for praise,—vanity, might each be a stumbling block to him. It seemed to me that we teachers had unconsciously elaborated a system which should secreure the discipline of the schools and the eagerness of the scholars,—by means of marks, prizes, and the like,—and yet eliminate that knowledge-hunger, itself the quite sufficient incentive to education.”
[Think and write more on this. Does it not sum up our (Scott’s and my) primary reasons for educating our children at home?]
“…we all know that desultory reading is delightful and incidentlally profitable but is not education whose concern is knowledge.” [Query: would unschoolers agree? Do I agree?] “That is, the mind of the desultory reader only rarely makes the act of appropriation which is necessary before the matter we read becomes personal knowledge. We must read in order to know or we do not know by reading.”
From ONE MAN’S MEAT by E.B. White:
“I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”
—written in July 1938
[Interesting to read in conjunction with DHM’s series of posts about television this week.]
“When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.”
[And this long before cable and internet news. And yet, is not much of my frustration over current events connected to the way so many people insulate themselves, either deliberately or through apathy, from knowledge of what is really happening in this country and others? What Charlotte Mason described in the quote above as an apparent inability to “see beyond the circle of their own interests”?]
From Chesterton’s biography of Dickens:
“And, behind all this nine years’ wonder that filled the world, behind his gigantic tours and his ten thousand editions, the crowded lectures and the crashing brass, behind all the thing we really see is the flushed face of a little boy singing music-hall songs to a circle of aunts and uncles. And this precocious pleasure explains much, too, in the moral way. Dickens had all his life the faults of the little boy who is kept up too late at night. The boy in such a case exhibits a psychological paradox; he is a little too irritable because he is a little too happy. Like the over-wrought child in society, he was splendidly sociable, and yet suddenly quarrelsome. In all the practical relations of his life he was what the child is in the last hours of an evening party, genuinely delighted, genuinely delightful, genuinely affectionate and happy, and yet in some strange way fundamentally exasperated and dangerously close to tears.”
—CHARLES DICKENS, THE LAST OF THE GREAT MEN, p. 21-22 (1906)