Living the Good Life

Many generations ago, when our country was very new in the political sense but very old still in respect of its general culture, many educated men and women kept what were in those days called commonplace books, mainly a compendium of quotations gleaned from their quotidian reading.  The practice lapsed a century and a half before the invention of the personal computer and must be as good as dead today, when actual date and appointment books are increasingly hard to find, as a columnist for The Spectator of London discovered recently.

Robert Beum’s Tradition: Authority and Freedom may be described as one man’s commonplace book intended for the benefit of other, like-minded people as well for his own personal one.  It is, however, quite obviously more than the product of leisured reading, though it is that as well: an energetic ransacking of source material in search of truth pithily and cogently expressed.  Mr. Beum has arranged his takings in categorical sections (Continuity, Belonging, Courtesy, Virtue, Limitation, Will, Love, and so forth) that amount, almost, to a series of staccato notes intended to outline a contemplated work—pensées written by scores of people and preceded by an Introduction that has more to say about the meaning of tradition in a brief compass of 2,500 words or so than any other essay I can recall.  The range...

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