Commonplace Book - Spring 2012


By Anne Matthews | March 1, 2012


[A] tenant house is open to the weather from all six sides, for the floor is raised, and there are seldom protection boards between floor and earth; and ceilings are not at all common. … There is no possibility of privacy at any time for any purpose. … The beds, the bedding, and the vermin are such a crime against sex and the need of rest as no sadistic genius could much improve on … though the deepest and most honest and incontrovertible rationalization of the middle-class southerner is that they are ‘used’ to it …

James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941

Privacy proves to be the Cheshire cat of values: not much substance, but a very winning smile.

Jonathan Franzen, How to Be Alone, 2003

To be a very public man—an actor onstage, a successful playwright, a celebrated poet; and at the same time to be a very private man—a man who can be trusted with secrets, a writer who keeps his intimate affairs to himself and subtly encodes all references to others: this was the double life Shakespeare had chosen … deep ambition drove him to public performance, [but] his family secrets and his wary intelligence—perhaps reinforced by the sight of the severed heads on London Bridge—counseled absolute discretion.

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World, 2004

The right to be left alone—the most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men.

Justice Louis Brandeis, Olmstead v. United States, 1928

The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind’s masonry …
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Snow-Storm,” 1841

He could do more with a closed door than other directors could do with an open fly.

Billy Wilder on Ernst Lubitsch

The emotion I put into the singing came from a heart soaked with recent loss: the depletion of my father’s cattle, my expulsion from home. The public and private emotion of loss intersected. The crowd joined in … as if the students had been part of the convoy of the caged.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Dreams in a Time of War, 2010

Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But … the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871

A fat manilla envelope addressed to the person I was purporting to be … [held] a United Kingdom passport, an American passport (clipped to which was a Social Security card in the same name), and a U.N. Secretariat passport. Tucked inside each was an international driving license and a few bills and used envelopes in the same name … also cheque-books issued by the Royal Bank of Canada, Chase Manhattan, Westminster and the Dai-ichi Bank in Tokyo … comb, compressed dates, plastic raincoat, folding knife, prismatic compass … Colt .32 automatic. … This, too, is a spy’s insurance policy.

Len Deighton, The Ipcress File, 1962

I’m going for the secrets, the chronique intime, as they say here; what the people want is just what isn’t told, and I’m going to tell it. … We’ll see who’s private then!

—Scandal-sheet journalist George Flack, in Henry James, The Reverberator, 1888

With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about. … Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.

Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, The Atlantic/Washington Ideas Forum, 2010

[A]s I began to study the nascent digital culture culture, I could see that computers were not “just tools.” They were intimate machines. People experienced them as part of the self, separate but connected. … People feel at one with video games, with lines of computer code, with the avatars they play in virtual worlds, with their smartphones. … We are meant to become cyborg.

Sherry Turkle, “Transitional Objects,”, 2012

The peace of Friday evenings after
staff have left the open-plan deserted,
before cleaners key-in for their shift
… suspended between worlds, I drum
on the plastic in-tray, stare down at
the frenzied city, disinclined to budge.

Dennis O’Driscoll, Quality Time, 1997

It is strange to be known so universally and yet be so lonely.

Albert Einstein, c. 1952

The most prized of all enclosed spaces was the garden … an intimate, quiet place, a spot where a man could work alone … where people tasted life’s pleasures and sampled fruits and vegetables they grew themselves, far more delicious, as everyone knows, than fruits and vegetables grown by anyone else.

Philippe Aries and Paul Veyne, A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, 1992

The French looked at granites, salts, and clay, and decided to go with clay. The Belgians and Dutch are looking at clay and salts. … The Swiss … decided that, in their particular instance—since the Alps are still growing and slopes are not all that stable over hundreds of thousands of years—to look … at their deep basins of clays close to the Rhine River as a repository location. We’re all looking to isolate this material for about a million years.

Abraham Van Luik, U.S. Department of Energy, on nuclear-waste entombment, 2009

Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.

M. F. K. Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, 1942

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