Commonplace Book

"Making commodes and dining tables"

From Essays in Love by Alain de Botton:

It is hard to imagine Christianity having achieved such success without a martyr at its head. If Jesus had simply led a quiet life in Galilee, making commodes and dining tables and at the end of his life published a slim volume titled My Philosophy of Life before dying of a heart attack, he would not have acquired the status he did.

(originally posted 2005-05-22, updated for micro.blog)

Arnold Bennett quotes

Quotes from Journal Of Things New and Old by Arnold Bennett (about 1923)

All political parties in all countries disappear sooner or later, except the Conservative, and the Conservative is immortal because it is never for long divided against itself. How many times in Britain has the Liberal Party split? The first and most powerful instinct of Tories is self-preservation. They do not really want anything but the status quo.


The best part of a holiday is that daily habits and rituals are broken.


When a good novel falls away at the end or near the end, it’s because the writer simply ran out of power. He miscalculated his creative strength. Nobody can pour a quart out of a pint pot.

[Man, was that ever true in the case of Stephen King’s Wizard and Glass. The middle part of the book was strong and powerful. The coda in the Emerald City was anti-climactic and sodden by comparison. And I could tell King was trying to goose it along, trying to make the characters frightened and anxious. But it only made me annoyed. The book’s real story had been told and this last bit was simply the connective tissue to get them moving back along the Path of the Beam.]


[Attending the performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko lifted his spirits regarding his in-progress novel.]

A novel in process of creation has to be lifted up … [maybe] again and again. The large mood for it has to be recaptured again and again, to work its miracle there is nothing so efficacious as the sight or hearing of a great work of art – any art. Many times have I gone into the National Gallery, or to a fine concert … to recover the right mood.

An artist engaged in a work ought never to read or see or hear second-class stuff. If he does, he realizes the resemblances between his work and the second-class; and is discouraged. Whereas if he sticks to first-class stuff, he realizes the resemblances between his work and it, and is enheartened thereby.


It is well not to chatter too much about what one is doing, and not to betray a too-pained sadness at the spectacle of a whole world deliberately wasting so many hours out of every day, and therefore not really living. It will be found, ultimately, that in taking care of one’s self, one has quite all one can do.


Can you deny that when you have something definite to look forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your energy, the thought of that something gives a glow and a more intense vitality to the whole day?

(originally posted 2005-05-22, updated for micro.blog)

The Limits of Reading

Anthony Lane, in an excellent appraisal of PG Wodehouse in The New Yorker (April 19 & 26, 2004 - not online), includes this quote from Marcel Proust:

Reading becomes dangerous when instead of waking us to the personal life of the spirit, it tends to substitute itself for it, when truth no longer appears to us as an ideal we can realize only through the intimate progress of our thought and the effort of our heart, but as a material thing, deposited between the leaves of books like honey ready-made by others, and which we have only to take the trouble of reaching for on the shelves of the libraries and then savoring passively in perfect repose of body and mind.

Lane, who loves Wodehouse in precisely measured doses, draws a good dividing line between artists of the first and second ranks (there are further ranks, of course). An artist of the first rank creates a world with clear and real correspondences to our world–“who returns us with a vengeance to our own travails.” I think of Chekhov’s stories of peasant and middle-class life, which, though they occur in a place and time so different from ours as to seem another world, resonate with the life I see around me every day.

An artist of the second rank, such as Wodehouse, Doyle, Tolkien, instead create a “complete alternative world, fully furnished and ready for occupation.” The worlds of Sherlock Holmes, Hobbits, and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster (and dare I say, “Star Trek”?) offer cozy cubbies to curl into, and there is real pleasure in that. I never want to give up those worlds.

Without denying Wodehouse’s mastery, Lane uses Proust’s quote to turn his essay to what happens when we stay too long in those worlds, as Wodehouse did and as Lane’s Uncle Eric did. Lane describes in his article how his Uncle Eric had two complete Wodehouse collections, one for upstairs, one for downstairs, all heavily annotated by himself in pencil. When he needed to look up a reference, I guess he needed to do it immediately. Uncle Eric never married and though he led a busy life, it ended rather narrowly, as a bit of a genteel hermit, without many friends apart from distant family.

A few quotes from Lane’s piece:

…When you fall afoul of the real world, your exploration of the unreal will grow ever more quizzical and devout. Comedy is still our least bestial way of admonishing the wreckage of our lives–no animal has ever laughed–but too much comedy, or nothing but comedy, has a subtle, feline habit of pushing our lives so far away from us that they cease, as if in a dream, to be our responsibility…The journey that is charted in Uncle Eric’s Wodehouse collection, in the self-persuading chatter of his annotations, is a journey away from the great things–from the predations of love and war–into the wavelike soothings of the small.

…Like many of us, [Uncle Eric] wanted the good life, or, failing that, the quiet life, and he found that it was most readily available between hard covers….There are times when the quest for good, or the belief that the good and quiet life are all that matters, can shrivel into a minor kind of evil–when the desire to be innocent, unfoxed by the dust and dirt of relationahips, and unscraped by the presence of people very different from ourselves, can dwindle into the loneliness of the bigot. We have to give a damn.