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.

As it turns out, a commonplace book is much like a scrapbook with collections of all sorts of things the writer wanted to be able to track and remember. Since I was a little boy I have collected all kinds of trivia, quotes, and obscure facts, firmly subscribing to this philosophy, with which I hope you will agree:

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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