Tumblr as a Commonplace Book

March 21, 2012 | 17 6 min read

Over 46 million blogs exist on Tumblr. That figure is peanuts compared to the 845 million users on Facebook or the 462 million on Twitter, but the five-year-old company is currently enjoying a period of exponential growth. Given the its simplicity, this newfound popularity should come as no surprise. After all, it’s easy to use Tumblr — you hardly have to do anything. While users certainly have the ability to post original content to their blogs, the vast majority choose to “reblog” content previously posted by other users. In other words, to tumble is to appropriate — not generate — content. Almost every blog on Tumblr is a pastiche of images, memes, or quotes that belong to others. Whether Tumblr represents a unique form of self-expression or just another way to bookmark online curios is a different question; at the most basic level, however, we can say that each user’s blog represents an amalgamation of (possibly related) content. This ability to easily aggregate others’ content has allowed the platform to carve out a sizable niche on the Internet and earn the distinction of being one of today’s hippest (and most valuable) Internet properties. That said, we should recall that Tumblr is not the first technology to engage in this practice. Consider the early-modern European analogue to Tumblr: the commonplace book.

Maintained by writers such as John Milton and Ben Jonson, commonplace books were personal notebooks teeming with aphorisms, quotations, and annotations. In a world without Wikipedia, the commonplace book was especially handy for argumentation, for it was a reservoir of useful wisdom that could be memorized and deployed in rhetoric and composition. In fact, in his essay “The Commonplace Bee: A Celebration,” Princeton professor Anthony Grafton writes that the 16th-century humanist Justus Lipsius argued exclusively via citations he memorized from his commonplace book. Lipsius, who once offered to recite Tacitus with a dagger to his throat, liberally quoted other greats like St. Augustine, Cyprian, and Cicero in order to broadcast his erudition and insulate himself from criticism. “When challenged,” according to Grafton, Lipsius “replied, calmly, that his opponents, even if already old men, needed to go back to school.” (Maybe Lipsius served as inspiration for Newt Gingrich — last week’s New Yorker “Talk of The Town” noted that Gingrich has amassed dozens of shoeboxes’ worth of interesting quotes on scraps of paper since high school.)

But perhaps the phenomenon of keeping a commonplace book dates back even earlier than the Renaissance. Grafton notes that Seneca, first-century Roman Stoic philosopher, likened the commonplace book to a literary honeycomb:

We should follow…the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in. These bees, as our Virgil says, “pack close the flowing honey, and swell their cells with nectar sweet.” We could so blend these several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

Here Seneca described the intellectual synthesis that results from annotation in the commonplace book. His words also illustrated the dominant strain of thought regarding the commonplace book’s purpose, in which the book guided its owner en route to erudition. Given the onerous demands on those who wished to be learned, the commonplace book would serve as the ideal aid to scholars. Erasmus nicely situates us: “Anyone who wants to read through all types of authors (for once in a lifetime all literature must be read by anyone who wishes to be considered learned) will collect as many quotations as possible for himself.” No small task.

True, like Tumblr users, owners of commonplace books actively compiled information. True, the “quote” button on the Tumblr dashboard seems especially reminiscent of commonplacing. And true, Tumblr serves as a memory aid in a similar vein, allowing one to bookmark and revisit content that, in the abyssal space of the Internet, might be impossible to find without the right keywords the next day. Tumblr may be all of these things, but it’s definitely not the study aid described above. But before we bust this analogy, let’s consider the commonplace book’s less serious purposes. While championing its role as a scholarly tool, Erasmus also extolled the commonplace book for its whimsical qualities. In describing Thomas More’s daughters, avid keepers of commonplace books, Erasmus delighted in the frivolous aspects to their art of commonplacing, observing, “they flit like so many little bees between Greek and Latin authors of every species, here noting down something to imitate… there getting by heart some witty anecdote to relate among their friends.” Entertaining friends with a witty anecdote — learned casually “here” and “there” — seems more like preparation for cocktail party repartee than for a career in academia. The Roman writer Aulus Gellius’ nonchalant approach to commonplacing resembles that of the average Tumblr user as well. Gellius, who Grafton introduces to us in “The Commonplace Bee,” said that “[he] used to jot down whatever took my fancy, of any and every kind, without any different plan or order.” Such carefree recording of interesting quotes is not different to what one sees on Tumblr, where untold numbers of daily, inspirational, or random quotes circulate in the site’s unpredictable ecosystem.

So commonplace books did not always serve scholarly ends — fine, you say. But what about the question of audience? Commonplace books were very private documents, while Tumblr pages are public. Well, this is only notionally true — the audience for a random, non-celebrity, unspecialized Tumblr blog is effectively zero. (Trust me — I speak from experience.) In this case, if information is public but not accessed by anyone, is the distinction between public and private still germane? The possibility that someone else — say, a future employer or girlfriend — could access one’s Tumblr blog could introduce an element of image-consciousness, but it’s unlikely that this fact would substantially alter the content of one’s collection of material created by others.

But the most serious flaw in the analogy regards the information society in which Tumblr exists: we live in an archival age, in which memory has reached a point of near-irrelevance. With the right keyword, we can instantly recall any message, photo, or article instantly. That memory is never endangered by the specter of forgetting endangers memory more than ever. Thanks to this ultimate memory aid, we never have to remember anything, so we forget. In the age of the commonplace book — an age of admittedly considerably less information — scholarly minds whizzed with quotations, constantly maintained because anything, if forgotten, could be lost forever. The stakes were high: aphorisms, entire speeches had to be deployed in conversation or rhetoric by heart — they weren’t just talismans to be reblogged because they seemed neat.

But maybe we’ve been too critical of Tumblr. It may lack to scholarly direction of the commonplace book, but there’s beauty in minutiae. What seems to be trivial could be of utmost importance. At the very least, the indirect, more playful medium of Tumblr is not inconsequential — its value just may not be legible to us yet. As Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei famously declaimed, “In this material world, the space for thought is narrowing; the world is lacking in imagination and meaning. Stories, dreams, fantasies — they could all become vehicles for expression.” That China has blocked access to Tumblr testifies to the platform’s potency as a vehicle for expression. Maybe we’ve underestimated the power of the reblog.

In the case of the commonplace book at least, we have been operating under the assumption that the accumulation of knowledge is a noble enterprise, almost beyond reproach. Nietzsche, naturally, presents the dissenting voice. In “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” he writes that information only serves to weigh us down. “In the end modern man drags an immense amount of indigestible knowledge stones around with him, which on occasion rattle around in his belly, as the fairy tale has it.” Within the sphere of Tumblr, this question rears its head as well — do we really need to refresh our Dashboard again to see if Zooey Deschanel or our ex-boyfriend has posted something new? From this Nietzschean point of view, the acquisition of knowledge doesn’t only fail to improve our lives — it makes them more difficult.

Oscar Wilde would agree. In “De Profundis,” he wrote, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” In the practices of commonplacing and reblogging, this last phrase has literally become true: their passions a reblog. While Nietzsche warned us about history’s capability to imprison us, Wilde would be more concerned that these technologies could efface our identities and, as a result, diminish our capacity for original thought. On one’s Tumblr page, consciously or not, one forms one’s identity by appropriating other people’s words and images. And when using a commonplace book, as demonstrated by Justus Lipsius, one undergoes an exercise in recitation, not ratiocination. Wilde is right — these collections, online or in print, induce a sort of intellectual passivity.

In ultimately questioning the dangers of both the commonplace book and Tumblr — departing from the initial task of sorting out the imperfect analogy between them — we’ve now said so much as to say nothing definitive. We’ve evaded responsibility for an all-consuming conclusion and instead now sit at the intersection of these two technologies, at once so similar and so different. Consider the Tumblr blog. Consider the commonplace book. And then, finally, consider your consideration of the two.

Image: Wikimedia

has contributed articles and essays to the New York Times, The New Inquiry, Guernica, and Sports Illustrated. In the fall, he will be a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Yale.