Of Commonplace Things: Sarah Clift on Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana

Patrick Madden, Quotidiana: Essays, University of Nebraska Press, 2010

We sometimes refer to thoughts as trains because the mind travels along a long track through different terrains and climates, caught up in the scene of the moment while only subconsciously aware of the connection to the preceding scenes. With his first book, Quotidiana, Patrick Madden gives us a first class ticket on the train of his thoughts, and it is an enjoyable ride. He also invites us to lay our own track:

So let’s think more, ponder, wonder, meander, maunder. Despite appearances to the contrary, despite the clamor and clang of true-life sensationalism in every medium, quotidian essays are being written and published all the time. They’re an antidote to the harried hullabaloo of — what? — talk shows? tabloids? the maddening crowd? And so I (and my friends, known and unknown) continue this quiet labor, stopping to smell the roses, suspicious that the tree falling in the forest does make a sound, the cat in the box might as well be alive. The exercise of writing from the infinite suggestiveness of common things has proved fruitful for me time and again, with essays sparked by considerations of garlic, diaper changing, washing grapes, a chipped tooth, and others. I’m addicted to that world’s whisper. (9-10)

Madden’s title comes from a phrase he heard while learning Spanish as a missionary in Uruguay: la vida cotidiana, meaning “everyday life.” He expands on our English equivalent, quotidian, and creates the world of Quotidiana. On his website, he defines this Quotidiana as “the land of everyday, commonplace things.”

Madden introduces us to his world in a series of ten essays. The first, “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things,” is foundational, as it recounts his discovery of essaying:

During my first extended encounters with the essay, I was struck (dumbstruck, moonstruck) by those authors who wrote from seemingly insignificant, overlooked, transient things, experiences, and ideas, who were able to find within their everyday, unexceptional lives inspiration for essaying. (2)

With this first essay, Madden ensures that readers know the genre they are about to experience. Essays, as part of the creative nonfiction genre, are more than an artistic retelling of past, true events; they are anecdotes or observations with reflective meditations. The anecdotes or observations need not be grand events by themselves, but an essayist can make the smallest observation grand with his or her insights. Madden explains these attributes of an essay and thereby enhances the essay-reading experience,

Essayists are keen observers of the overlooked, the ignored, the seemingly unimportant. They can make the mundane resplendent with their meditative insights. (4)

Once he opens our eyes to the endless possibilities of the mind and, by extension the essay based on things seemingly mundane, Madden offers a recipe for a successful essay: “A successful commonplace essay will gather memories and researches, attach ideas and stories to build upward, toward meaning.” (6)

In the remaining nine essays, Madden shows how to execute this formula. Especially insightful and entertaining is his essay “Laughter.” Madden begins with the observation that his infant is just learning to laugh. This observation leads him to a third-century BC Egyptian papyrus that says God created the world through bursts of laughter. He then takes us on a journey through laughing gas, different kinds of laughter, and laughing animals. (This explains his cover art, featuring a kookaburra, formally known as the “laughing jackass.”) Madden then recounts the story of Democritus (known as the Laughing Philosopher), the etymology of laughter, and the sounds of laughter. He pauses with an anecdote about his son’s many trips to the emergency room because of foreign objects in his nose, and the doctor who laughs every time he sees them. He shows how laughter can break down social barriers with a story of his son’s peek-a-boo game with a stranger on a New Jersey train. Madden continues the string of memories, researches, ideas, and stories to build to the health benefits of laughing. The essay ends with his memory of laughing in church then a return to his infant daughter laughing.

This sequence may seem disjointed, but it is an accurate representation of what happens in our minds when one small, commonplace thing sets off our thinking. For that reason, Madden’s essays are familiar and readable. Riding his thought-train is comfortable, yet thought-provoking in its own right. Few writers can inspire their readers to take part in their craft. Yet Madden’s collection of essays inspires us to look at our commonplace, quotidian life and see that it is both wonderful and meaningful, and then to engage the essayist in each of us.



Sarah Clift recently graduated from Brigham Young University with a bachelor of general studies degree, writing emphasis.  She is a writer and editor in Elk Grove, California.