Charley Locke / Commonplace Book

When I was 20, I started to keep a notebook of lines that I read and loved. At first, this was an assignment for my favorite class (thank you, Richard Deming). But I kept it up, and over the years, my commonplace book has served as a a way to see what has felt urgent to me—to stay on nodding terms with myself through conversations with authors.

I wrote about this practice in a Letter of Recommendation for The New York Times Magazine, accompanied by a beautiful illustration by the talented Daniel Liévano. Afterwards, I started to hear from readers about the quotes that are meaningful to them. I loved it.

I wanted to share some of the quotes that stay with me here. If you keep your own commonplace book, or just have lines from writing that roll around in your head, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to add a comment below or email me.

Illustration by Daniel Liévano

He was wearing a blue polyester-cotton-blend dress shirt that had giant sweat stains under the arms. There was tomato sauce or blood on his chin. Half of his collar was turned up and he looked like a kid who’d insisted on getting ready for school all my himself.
—Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows

The world about us would be desolate except for the world within us.
—Wallace Stevens

Ever since I was fourteen years old and wrote Carl Sandburg the glad news that I thought he was a fine poet, I have sent a letter of praise and thanks to anyone who writes anything that gives me the excitement of new understanding. This is no more than common politeness; we say thank you without meaning it, why not say it when you’re really grateful?
—Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another

But what I really wished would it would have been is those three-in-the-mornings in a booth with a bunch of people that I really liked talking about whatever and being engaged and some beautiful woman across the room that you thought you might have something with—that’s all I really wanted from my life.
—Sean Wilsey, More Curious

Of all the forms of freedom
I have and have not felt, this—
this tripping through the cords
of someone else’s beauty—
is a gift as old as earth,
whirled in sunlight.
—Jesse Nathan, From the Beginning

It seemed to Samuel that Adam might be pleasuring himself with sadness… “Do you take pride in your hurt?” Samuel asked. “Does it make you feel large and tragic? Maybe you’re playing a part of a great stage with only yourself as audience.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

The years crawled back in their holes. It was the Monterey where they used to put a wild bull and a grizzly bear in the ring together, a place of sweet and sentimental violence, and a wise innocence as yet unknown and therefore undirtied by undiapered minds.
—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

Maybe he was like so many men who tried to be feminist, polite, different, but to do this was like holding in a voluminous fart, and sooner or later he would burst, because ultimately he could not forget how important he was.
—Alice Kim, The Missing Guest

To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading your beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled. Then, what of the right answers, the so-called multiple choice examination sheet with the number 2 pencil to mark one choice and one choice only?
—Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics

He calls me his waif, his down-on-her-luck waitress, but he takes it all lightly. In fact, Holly Golightly is one of his names for me. If we lived together I would expose myself as the blighted Jean Rhys character I really am.
—Lily King, Writers & Lovers

Seeing dawn in the countryside does me good, seeing dawn in the city affects me for both good and ill and therefore does me even more good. For all the greater hope it brings me contains, as does all hope, the far-off, nostalgic aftertaste of unreality. Dawn in the countryside just exists; dawn in the city overflows with promise. One makes you live, the other makes you think. And, along with all the other great unfortunates, I’ve always believed it better to think than to live.
—Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

The malicious innocence of an aging virgin
—Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name

You know that feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, maybe for the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?
—George Saunders, GQ

our hands empty except our hands
—Ocean Vuong

Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pya attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book. I would rather have talked to Ivan, the love interest, but somehow I didn’t get to decide.
—Elif Batuman, The Idiot

One girl’s heart beat so furiously that her pulse was visible beneath her dress; other girls’ sashes trembled.
—Pamela Colloff, Queen for a Day

Arleen Solidark, stiffly peruked, extended her bosom over counter two. She had daggerlike nails that were painted a silvery peach. Harry knew that her husband was allergic to cats.
—Laurie Colwin, Passion and Affect

When I was younger, I was obsessed with the idea that I couldn’t live every life — it seemed so unfair to be born only to be forced to live one narrow life. It seemed like such a stupid waste of existence, to only exist as a single person. My fears about not experiencing motherhood — and therefore not being able to write from that position — were as much about feeling that I needed to experience a kaleidoscope of human realities to know what life is, and therefore to write about it. But the older I get, the more I feel like it’s interesting and significant that we only get to be this one person. Life seems more tragic, and poignant, and sad, and exhilarating, and odd this way. I now feel like the limitation of life is the essence of a human life. It’s not a bug in the program that we’re stuck being ourselves.
—Sheila Heti, LARB interview

And after screwing, mi general liked to go out into the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and think about postcoital sadness, that vexing sadness of the flesh, and about all the books he hadn’t read.
—Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives

A man whose starched, pressed uniform reeked of Blanco and rectitude
—Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

There are children who are too old to be children. It stops being a problem when they get older—they grow into themselves—but before that happens it’s perpetually awkward. For you it was a mix of judgment and wistfulness. You thought all this stuff was stupid, but you also had no idea how to get it, and you wanted it.
—Joan Wickersham, The Boy’s School, or the News from Spain

Vollmann is neither a readers’ writer not a writers’ writer but a writer’s writer, which is to say William T. Vollmann’s writer.
—Tom Bissell, The New Republic

Everyone wanted a piece of the action; every 25-year-old was the president of his own corporation, and everyone had a sidelines.
—Mimi Swartz on Houston, No Promises

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s