What Is Commonplace About?

This blog started as a way to share fun facts with my boys, who share my curiosity, sense of humor, and fascination with seemingly-useless trivia. It seems that we are not alone in the world, and soon I began to see lots of others stumbling across Commonplace and spreading the word.

The name was inspired by a Sherlock Holmes story. In the Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb. Dr. Watson wrote, “We both sat in silence for some little time after listening to this extraordinary narrative. Then Sherlock Holmes pulled down from the shelf one of the ponderous commonplace books in which he placed his cuttings.” I was intrigued by that word commonplace. I always thought it meant “boring” or “ordinary,” and I couldn’t reconcile either of those words being attributed to Sherlock Holmes.

I learned that a “commonplace book” is simply a scrapbook of random bits of information that the owner finds useful or interesting. Once I learned that, I realized this was something I had been doing all my life — collecting random tidbits of information, and either writing them down or filing them away in my memory to be shared at some appropriate time. Through the miracle of the internet, it is now possible to publish my commonplace book and share it with others.

The Commonplace logo represents what this site is all about. The stylized “C” stands for “Commonplace.” It is also the shell for an astronaut’s helmet, which represents space — the biggest topic to explore. The electrons swirling around the helmet represent the subatomic realm — the smallest area of exploration. The multi-sized diamonds represent bits of data in the digital realm — the means by which Commonplace is compiled and distributed. All of the elements tie into and depend on each other, because, ultimately, there is no such thing as “useless” knowledge; anything and everything we can learn has value.

This belief, that there is no such thing as “useless knowledge” is something that has driven me since I was a young boy. It is best articulated here:

Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu:
“All your teaching is centered on what has no use.”

Chuang Tzu replied:
“If you have no appreciation for what has no use,
You cannot begin to talk about what can be used.

The earth for example, is broad and vast,
But of all this expanse a man uses only a few inches
Upon which he happens to be standing.

Now suppose you suddenly take away
All that he actually is not using,
So that all around his feet a gulf
Yawns, and he stands in the Void
With nowhere solid except under each foot.
How long will he be able to use what he is using?

Hui Tzu said: “It would cease to serve any purpose.”

Chuang Tzu concluded:
“This shows the absolute necessity
Of what has ‘ no use.”
― Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu    

 

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