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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Books and Books

From Washington Lawyer, October 2012

By Jacob A. Stein

Legal Spectator

In my office there is a collection of Commonplace Books. They take up three shelves, collected over 50 years.

The English author Thomas Fuller, in 1642, defined the words common–place–book: “A common–place–book contains many notions in garrison, whence the owner may draw out an army into the field.”

Rupert Hart–Davis put in his commonplace book the things that “interested, moved or amused me.” In his book, this interesting quotation caught my eye:

I always say you can get your tragedy of any desired length in England, from thirty seconds to a life–time. I had one adorable one of twenty–nine minutes by the watch. At the end of that time I started for my train. Woman I’d had a glimpse of in London—walk. She sat on a stile, I below her, gazing into her eyes—then, ‘remember this lane,’ ‘while memory holds its seat, etc.’ ‘Adieu.’ And I still do and ever shall remember her, and I rather think she does me a little bit. What imbecilities for an old fellow to be talking. But if one knows his place and makes way for younger men when he isn’t sure, it is better perhaps not quite to abandon interest in the sports of life.   
—Oliver Wendell Holmes

I wonder where Hart-Davis found that quote. It is not in Holmes’ concise, clear style. Could it be one of Holmes’ letters to his personal English friend Frederick Pollock? Holmes did write letters to an Englishwoman, Emily Ursula Clare St. Leger (Lady Clare Castletown), but love letters!!?

Christina Foyle, the daughter of the owner of the famous Foyles bookstore in London, published a commonplace book. Here is an interesting quote:

Anyone who wants to get to the top has to have the guts to be hated. That applies to politicians, writers, anybody who gets into a certain position. Because that’s how you get there. You don’t get there by everybody loving you. Everybody in the world wants to be liked by everybody else. That’s human nature. But you have to learn to take it.
Bette Davis

I wonder whether Prime Minister William Gladstone could “take it” when Benjamin Disraeli, who also served as prime minister, fired this at short range in one of the commonplace books:

A sophistical rhetorician [Gladstone], inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and to glorify himself.

Author J. T. Hackett says in his commonplace book that he collected, at odd moments, a quotation of special interest, but “there are two reasons why it may have some special interest. One reason is that it includes passages from a number of authors who appear to have become forgotten, or, at any rate, to be passing Lethe–wards. . . . It must be remembered that this book is not an anthology. A commonplace book is usually a collection of reminders made by a young man who cannot afford an extensive library. . . .”

John G. Murray, the London–based publisher, included in his book, A Gentleman Publisher’s Commonplace Book, this Soviet joke:

Q. What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?
A. Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it is exactly the opposite.

And one more in Murray’s book appropriate for the times:

‘Nothing in all the known world of politics is so intractable as a band of zealots, conscious that they are in a minority, yet armed by accident with the powers of a majority.’

R. L. Hines, an English solicitor, noted in his commonplace book that “[i]n our profession one is constantly learning, or one should be learning. Sometimes it is law itself, always it is human nature. . . .”

Here is another:

It is fatal, of course, to betray any sign of ignorance or incomprehension in the presence of a client. Nothing must disturb

The keenness of that practised eye,
The hardness of that sallow face.

I started my own commonplace book, without knowing it, when I made my first trip to the Mt. Pleasant Public Library. Once there, I borrowed three books. Then, every two weeks, I returned the old and borrowed three more. Later I did what the other commonplacers have done, I kept notes, papers, and scribbling. I never thought I would ever put them in a book, as I am doing now.

In the libraries I investigated over the years, I once toured the stacks in the Library of Congress. I helped a friend in some landlord–tenant litigation. This friend was always short of money. He gambled away whatever he had. He knew of my book addiction, and as gratitude, he got me a 40–day pass to the stacks of the Law Library of Congress, with its thousands of statutes, new and old, and constitutions, new and old. It also has books about biblioklepty, the uncontrollable addiction of book thievery. Does anyone know what medicine you take for that?

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.