The word commonplace originates from Greek tópos koinós which means
‘a theme or argument of general application’.
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a widely used method for compiling knowledge, usually by writing information. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of knowledge transcribed into books by one creator, typically following an individual’s particular interests and were significant in early modern Europe. By the seventeenth century commonplacing was formally taught to college students. In 1706 Enlightenment philosopher John Lock wrote A New Method of Making Commonplace-Books, in which specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category is offered, along with the admonition that such books are not chronological and introspective as journals are, nor are they travelogues. Commonplacing remained standard practice as a popular study technique into the early twentieth century.
During this Age of Information, recording by writing on paper is a diminishing practice; consequently commonplace books can be viewed as charming relics of the past, and serve as fodder for contemporary projects, particularly to those interested in the book form.
Aimee Lee’s Peculiar and Commonplace book, published in 2018 in a limited and variable edition of ten copies is such an example.
Lee’s book is soft-cover, the size approximating that of letter-size paper. Tonally muted, the book spine is of a lighter colored paper that extends onto the cover, structurally mimicking a quarter-bound book and visually mimicking the left-hand column of the loose-leaf paper familiar to those educated in pre-computer environments. That both the title and author’s name present as hand-written provide further clues to the book’s general theme.
The text block consists of a two signatures, nestled side by side and sewn onto a full-width sheet that tucks into and is affixed to the handmade paper cover. The handmade pages are lightweight and fluffy and vary in tone, texture and opacity. The text is a mix of pre-published quotes with attributions and narratives written in both memoir and instructional styles, in both first and third person, from a variety of unattributed sources.
Illustrated throughout with both hand-drawing instructional sketches and physical samples from the making of a paper dress, the richness of Peculiar and Commonplace is furthered with the turning of every page.
An introductory page presents a quote by Kazim Ali and another by Barry Lopez that refer to the act of recording our own histories. This is followed by a Table of Contents (which may or may not be a break from the commonplace tradition). This table of contents provides an early clue that the book may well transcend the commonplace genre.
Early on is a tactile, enticing spread, filled with tipped-in samples of materials alongside sketches of the tools needed for the project at hand. This mixing of drawn sketches, with materials and digitally set text continues throughout the book, the pairings of quote with insert not always obvious or easy to digest.
In the copy I have at hand (#4) a page from Chapter III, Section F: Despair has quotes referencing emotional pain, including a snippet from a Marine corp fighter pilot, with a tip-in of paper-tape stitched to a lighter weight sheet, in khaki and green tones, the shape resembling a draped flag (a flag of surrender?). Another page with quotes referencing how we live with others is accompanied by a three segment panel, each panel a different color, nearly balanced, but not quite.
Then comes the spread with a completed paper dress accompanied by a very specific instruction:
Take everything you’ve learned, seen, gathered, watched, abandoned, caused, adored, cultivated and trashed. Handle everything repeatedly. Rearrange. Let the table be knocked over and the wind to blow as it pleases.
Then start again.
The final page includes a text from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street:
You must remember to come back. For the the ones who cannot leave as easily as you.”
This quote is accompanied by a sketch of a spiral bound notebook, the left side blank, the right side lined. It is unclear whether the lines represent writing, or the pre-printed lines often found in spiral-bound notebooks.
From the colophon I learn that the all of the text block’s papers were handmade by Lee from mulberry from various countries; the cover paper made by Jang Seong-woo in Gapyeong, Korea.
This all results in a remarkable book that uses both multiple production methods and hand-work brilliantly. I am pleased to read that Aimee Lee agrees. On her blog post is the following statement:
This is the first time, maybe ever, that I’ve felt 100% great about a book that I’ve made. It’s because I have the right tools (experience, technical skills, confidence) in the right combination.