Commonplaces: From Quote Books to ‘Sig’ Files

By Rachel ToorThe Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, May 25, 2001

“Every girl I know at Duke keeps a quote book,” my friend Lauren, a junior from south of Boston, told me recently. Many girls, she said, started in high school. Their books range in format from hastily penned scribbles in spiral notebooks to elaborate entries in designerly cloth covers; all contain collections of quotations. Lauren showed me hers. Not surprisingly, her quote book is in her own image: bright, eclectic, incisive, upbeat, witty, orderly. In it, she has transcribed quotations she’s come across in books, mostly with attributions (lots from Thoreau), but some without; things she’s heard professors say in class; comments by friends; and copies of e-mail messages needing to be saved in some sort of permanent fashion.

I used to work at Duke and am still part of the community. Over the years, I’ve asked other kids about their quote books. Most of them say, Oh yeah, I do keep track of quotes I like. Some of them do it in the context of diary-like writing; others devote a separate section of their personal journals to quotations. Women are mostly the ones who do so, but a few guys, when pressed, also confess to collecting the words and thoughts of others. Tim, an English major, says he does it, but “it’s no big deal.” He’s a frat boy and doesn’t tend to talk about such things. But he does think about them—a lot, and deeply—and he acknowledges that keeping track of quotations seems to help him with his own writing.

While it surprised me to learn about this contemporary practice, it’s not really an innovation. For centuries, young people had “copy books,” in which a heading at the top of a page would be followed by blank space for the obsessive transcription of quotations. The double purpose was to practice handwriting and to instill moral values, or perhaps just fear: “The wages of sin is death,” for example.

When it came time to put away childish things, the role of the copy book was assumed by its close cousin, the “commonplace book.” The process of maturation required the production of more-personal collections of writings, meant to provide inspiration, direction, and moral fortitude. Reading the commonplace books of historical figures like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or any number of antebellum Southern ladies gives us an interior view of each person’s self-image and the words that motivated him or her.

Atop today’s bestseller lists sit contemporary versions of commonplace books; we shelve them in the self-help, personal-growth sections of bookstores. Indeed, those volumes often provide fodder for college students’ quote books.

So, from copy and commonplace books to self-help and quote books, growth and development are what it’s all about. When you watch kids progress through their college careers, you see them morph before your very eyes, gaining confidence and the ability to express themselves, to define their personalities in accordance with—or in opposition to—the dominant culture, to go through the experience of seeing their families from a distance for the first time, to grow up and out into the world. They become both more like themselves, and more like their new friends. And they engage actively in self-examination and the analysis of everything, especially The Meaning of Life; they are deeply involved in The Search. It’s fun to watch these young people simultaneously seek creativity and conformity, to yearn to be individuals who both stand out and fit in.

The urge to be self-reflective seems to be expressed most easily by using the words of others. Growing up is about shaking off the accents of the familial home and learning new patterns of speech. It’s about developing your own voice, but it’s hard enough to figure out what you want to say; finding a new and insightful way to say it is a big burden. So it appeals, this quoting, finding tidbits of truth expressed by others more confident with language. And, at a time when life is often overwhelming, it’s reassuring to find and hold on to those sayings that provide guidance, inspiration, or maybe just a giggle.

Even those students who do not keep track of quotations in private journals are on the lookout for good sayings. Dorm-room doors boast white boards with “quote of the day” sections; common rooms have forums for people to write the favorite things they’ve heard or read; student papers often begin with quotations. Such public quoting is different from the interiority of private scribbling. It says something about you, not to you. It makes a statement, and (as we all remember from our college years) making a statement, too, is an important part of this phase of development. See how intellectual I am? See how cynical and worldly the inhabitants of this Nietzsche-quoting dorm are? I’m unique! I’ve got a bizarro sense of humor! These public quotes are bumper stickers for people who don’t spend a lot of time in cars.

The most-public expression of self through quotation that I’ve seen is in the signature files of students’ e-mail messages. We now have a generation that has grown up with e-mail; kids may send Hallmark cards, but they rarely write real, old-fashioned letters. They send e-mail. When their fingers dance above the computer keyboard, and they press “send,” they lose the individuality of paper preferences, the quirks of pen choice, and, of course, the distinction of handwriting. The medium imposes a sameness on the message: No matter who sends you an e-mail message, it looks the same when you read it. And it looks the same no matter where you send it from. While traveling abroad, college students no longer use the thin, pale-blue aerogrammes that my generation sent home with stories of overseas adventures; they go to cybercafes. Their e-mail could be coming from another country, or from the room down the hall.

The rigidity of the e-mail format presents a bit of a problem for self-expression: When your message looks just like everyone else’s, how do you get to be you, to make your own personal statement? How do you individuate when you can’t make a heart on the dot of your “i” or use bright-blue ink in a fountain pen? The software that allows you to finish your e-mail with a “signature,” which appears automatically at the bottom of all of your outgoing messages, has been a gift from computer geeks to college students everywhere.

Many of the students I know have such a “sig file.” They put in their dorm room and phone number, maybe, or the name of their sorority or the address of their work-study job. But they also can’t resist “signing” in some more personal way—often, at the bottom of every message, with a quotation. Sometimes the citations are funny, sometimes they’re outrageous, but often they are little blips of inspirational light, taken from, and out of, a broad array of contexts. Sometimes, the message is dull and predictable; other times, it adds a layer of complexity to understanding the sender. Of course, since the people who send me messages tend to be very smart college kids, there’s also a fair bit of posing and posturing in the choice of quotations. It is a good way—a quick fix—to personalize impersonal e-mail.

While I find the urge to collect the words and wisdom of others an understandable way to mark one’s developing self—and not a bad way to spend time—I do have some nagging questions about all this quoting. I wonder if transcription isn’t sometimes standing in for thinking, as in the days of copy books. Or if bite-sized bytes of pithiness are all we can attend to. I wonder about what this means about how college students are reading. Are they just seeking nuggets of truth, without paying heed to the context in which they’re mining? And what about attribution—do they know anything about the writers, thinkers, artists, or activists whom they are quoting? Do they make a distinction between characters in novels and authors? When they see a quote that they really like, does it impel them to find out more about the writer, to read more and more deeply, or do they let the quote stand alone?

My friends who are professors tell me that students often try to have quotations do the interpretative work for them, that they let replication replace analysis, that the collective attention span of today’s college generation has shortened even more than that of the MTV-watchers of my generation. The Internet has made it not only possible, but easy, to search for nubbins of information. You can always go deeper (I guess that’s the idea behind hypertext), but my sense is that many people don’t; there are too many competing demands on time. We’ve become a society of skimmers.

What a lot of these kids are skimming for when they pick out meaningful quotations, it seems to me, is The Right Answer. I am astonished by the emphasis on grades, not only in high school, where they do in fact matter in terms of getting admitted to college, but also on college campuses. Even students who don’t plan to apply to medical, law, or graduate school are obsessed with G.P.A.’s; they’ll argue about anything less than an A-. In class discussions, however, they are less likely to speak up, often seeking only to note the “right” answers, not to ask the hard questions. With an overload of information, perhaps the best they can hope for is a little quotation that will serve as a synecdoche, a stand-in for a more complex analysis.

Part of the reason that young women find quote books more appealing than young men, I suspect, is that maturing girls must struggle harder—or at least, differently—in their search for identity. They tend to be more outwardly directed, looking for others to tell them who they are, what and how they should think. We’ve all heard about how young women lose their voices in class discussions, letting the men control the discourse. I wonder whether, in seeking to find their own voices, even in the privacy of reading and writing, it’s safer to allow the words of others to speak for them.

Or perhaps all this quoting represents something else: not safety, but a kind of wisdom and humility. College-age girls, I’ve found, are less reluctant than their male peers to seek out mentors, whether in the form of teachers or friends among their contemporaries or among older women. They recognize the power of others to help them figure stuff out, and they seek that kind of assistance. For them, quoting may be like finding lots of mentors in likely —and unlikely—places: an understanding of the lack of uniqueness of the condition of growing up. Whichever interpretation is true (and my guess is, it’s a little of both), it’s definitely about growing up.

Perhaps, in a couple of centuries, historians will read Lauren’s quote book and draw a bead on life at the beginning of a new millennium. They may have to do some digging to contextualize Bart Simpson and Leo Buscaglia, Ani DiFranco and SARK. My guess is that it won’t be immediately clear, a couple of hundred years from now, what chicken soup has to do with the soul. But the use of quotations will say something to posterity about this generation of college students.