Keeping a Commonplace Book

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I love commonplace books; the most recent entry in my own is from the photographer Alfred Stieglitz: “Nearly right is child’s play.” —Michael Dirda

When I was eleven, my godmother gave me a hardcover notebook. Inside the front cover, she wrote: “It can be a diary, whatever you like!” It turned into whatever I liked.

The first surviving page—there are several torn out at the beginning, evidence of false starts made before I figured out what use to put the book to—is a list of potential character names: first names on one side, last names on the other. There are also lists of Likes (cities, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, reading uncensored books), Dislikes (being serious, snow, people who borrow stuff permanently), Quotes (‘three can keep a secret as long as two of them are dead’), Vocab (made-up or repurposed words a la Urban Dictionary), amongst others. These lists weren’t created all at once, but compiled over years, added to one or two items at a time. My favorite of these is the one titled Words, a list of words I liked, often more for their sound than their meaning: eclectic, elfin, exquisite, eloquent; crinkly, quirk, corrupt, cajole; shimmery, psyche, sepulchral, sinuous. Others seem more prophetic or insightful: scribe, judicial, introspective, and provocative (twice).

In my book, I also copied out song lyrics (painstakingly transcribed while pressing play-rewind repeatedly), poems I read at school, bits of creative writing from English classes. Some fragments are typed (how 2012!) and pasted in. There are clippings from magazines and newspapers—and, naturally, no shortage of Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Teenage Angst Poetry. I did fancy myself a writer, after all.

Though I did include some of my own writing in the book, these were pieces I either considered finished (that I’d revised and polished) or that were like the word version of those snapshots that seemed like a good idea at the time (you know the ones I mean), but now not so much. It wasn’t my journal—I had a separate notebook for that, and it wasn’t a writer’s notebook—I kept my writing projects, such as they were, in a binder. Though I didn’t know it at the time, what I had created was commonplace book.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Commonplace Books: The Basics

While the lyrics to eighties pop songs probably won’t be consulted for their wisdom in a hundred years, teenage me did have the basics of commonplacing down: find things that are meaningful to you and collect them, over time, in a book—eventually creating a sort of a textual collage.

Commonplace books have elements in common with journals/diaries, writer’s notebooks, and scrapbooks, but are their own distinctive genre. A commonplace book might include some of the commonplacer’s own thoughts and observations, but unlike a journal/diary, which typically consists of narrative entries written in chronological order, a commonplace book is non-narrative and non-chronological. Ideas are typically organized under headings rather than by date.

A commonplace book tends to be both less impulsive and less practical than a writer’s notebook. Entries into a commonplace book are usually made with some forethought—a particular pen, an attention to neatness—unlike a writer’s notebook in which fleeting thoughts are scribbled, often illegibly. A writer’s notebook is often kept with specific projects in mind, whereas commonplaced ideas are collected more for their intrinsic value—knowledge for knowledge’s sake—than any immediate practical purpose.

Clippings and photographs might be pasted into a commonplace book, but unlike a scrapbook, which is outward-facing—the curated version of the scrapbooker’s life they want to present to others—a commonplace book is inward-facing. It is either completely private, or at least designed with one reader in mind: the author/curator him or herself. As such, a commonplace book tends to be more honest and personal than a scrapbook.

Traditional Commonplace Books

Historically, a commonplace book was a handwritten notebook, a place to store quotations, ideas, reading notes, scraps of conversation, etc. for future reference.

[Commonplace] books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests. —Wikipedia

[Commonplace Book], [late 17th Century]Photo Credit: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory

Commonplace bookScholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. —Steven Johnson
Photo Credit: vlasta2

 

MS Eng 584 (1)A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories;” and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his. —Jonathan Swift
Photo Credit: John Overholt

 

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. … early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. —Robert Darnton, The Case for Books (149-150)

Here, Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, discusses how Charles Darwin’s commonplace book was influential in his formulation of the theory of evolution:


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This Harvard exhibit on note-taking includes scans of several handwritten (manuscript) commonplace books that you can flip through to see what they were like, and here’s an example of a nineteenth-century commonplace book that was published in print form:

Writers’ Commonplace Books

Many well-known writers kept commonplace books. Here’s a list of a few of them. Since most of these are out of print, the links are to WorldCat, which will show you what libraries near you have copies of the books.

Modern Commonplace Books

It might seem like commonplace books are a thing of the past; after all, who picks up a pen to write anymore? Why bother to transcribe text when it’s so easy to copy/paste? But a quick websearch shows they are alive and well.

Commonplace Book (Moleskine Foldout)Photo Credit: Chris Lott

76th of 2nd 365: A turned down corner in my previous commonplace bookI keep what I now realise is a commonplace book. A constant stream of notebooks—except most of my own notes go straight onto a keyboard these days … so the books are where everyone else’s notes go: notes on talks, and pages copied out of books. A lot of these. This is how I think. —James Bridle
Photo Credit: Tim Regan

 

The large version of my notebookRilke in my Commonplace Book[A commonplace book is] a means of collecting and storing all those bits of information that make our lives interesting. It could be a photo, an essay, or a quote. Regardless, it’s important information that you want to mark and save for later. Sharing things in my corner of the web makes them also form a part of my identity. What I share, to a large extent, is who I am. It’s how I communicate with you even if I’m not able to talk to you everyday. The destruction of a sharing service means I would also lose the ability to flip back through a history of my thought. Those long-forgotten hunches would stay forgotten and lost to history. Without a commonplace book that you control you’re gambling your ability to learn and grow from your current actions. —Andrew Spittle
Photo Credits: (top) George Redgrave
(bottom) Winston Hearn

 

Pages from my Commonplace BookKeep a commonplace book, inspiration board, scrapbook, or catch-all box to keep track of ideas and images. Not only do such collections help you remember thoughts, they create juxtapositions that stimulate creativity. My catch-all happiness document for happiness is 500 pages long, single-spaced. When I need a mental jolt, I just skip around and read random sections. It always helps. —Gretchen Rubin
Photo Credit: Jason Helzer

David Shields’s recent book, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, takes the form a commonplace book: a series of quotes from various sources compiled together and interspersed with his own thoughts. The controversial twist was that he removed all attribution from the quotes so there was no way to tell who wrote what, unless you were previously familiar with a quote or style of writing—or you flipped to the appendix his publisher made him include (and that he urged readers to tear out).

The American Scholar has a digital commonplace book with quotes collected around themes such as blame, grief, and gratitude.

Why Keep a Paper Commonplace Book in the 21st Century?

Several years ago, in “Poetry 101: Getting Started,” I wrote, “[W]rite poems you like out longhand. When you do this, you’ll find your hand moving as the poet’s did, your breath as the poet’s did. You slide inside the poem and it becomes yours if only for a moment. Keep a notebook, and copy into it poems that inspire you, that make you want to write. When the book’s full, you’ll have your very own personalized anthology—one that isn’t just good reading, but is a document of your growth as a poet.”

This advice was based on my own experience keeping such a notebook—in reality, a very traditional commonplace book in which I only copied poems and quotes from things I was reading. But at some point, I stopped adding to my book. For a while, I kept quotations in a Word document, and then on my Geocities website (RIP). These days, quotes I like end up on my blog, which is fine—it’s efficient and allows me share them with others—but I can’t help feel doesn’t have the same weight that the book did. Writing quotes out by hand, instead of copy/pasting, forces you to slow down and really pay attention to the words rather than skimming.

“[T]here are still good reasons for writers to keep commonplace books the old-fashioned way. In copying by hand a masterful construction from another writer, we can inhabit the words, grasp their rhythms and, with some luck, learn a little something about how good writing is made. —Danny Heitman

[T]he key thing was to write the words in your own hand — by this means, by laboriously and carefully copying out the insights of people smarter than you, you could absorb and internalize their wisdom. Call it osmosis-by-handwriting. …When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I’m succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I’m not writing anything out by hand; I’m not even typing the words … I’m just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don’t have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it’s even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that would be required if I were to write it out by hand.
Alan Jacobs

Commonplacing was a means of more deeply internalizing an author’s words, as its early practitioners often pointed out. It was a sign of attentiveness, of profound engagement with text. The cutting and pasting, or mashing up, that we do online today tends to be much more cursory and superficial—it’s done with a couple of mouse clicks rather than with the painstaking retracing of a passage in longhand. And what’s cut-and-pasted is rarely kept in the way that the passages in commonplace books were kept. (Rewriting a passage was often the first step in a process of memorization.) With cutting-and-pasting, the words remain external; we borrow them, briefly, rather than making them our own. —Nick Carr

There’s something important about exploring ideas privately as well as collectively. Indeed, there’s something about promiscuous online bookmarking and highlighting that seems antithetical to commonplacing. Because the real challenge of handling stray nuggets of information isn’t how to collect and organise them … Commonplacing is about internalising that information: engaging deeply, processing it so that it becomes part of you. Writing by hand seems to help; so does not instantly sharing everything. If the web is a wild, furiously creative ecosystem—a rainforest, say—the commonplace book is a private vegetable patch. Different things grow best in each. —Oliver Burkeman

Ideas for Keeping a Commonplace Book

Traditional Options

If you decide to start a traditional notebook as your commonplace book, consider how you write (e.g. do you have tiny, neat printing or sprawling, loopy cursive?). A small notebook can fit in a pocket, making it easy to take with you, but if you don’t have tiny handwriting, you might find it frustrating to use. Also think about your personal preferences and how you plan to use the book. If you hate it when your handwriting slopes up the page at angle, you’ll probably want to choose a lined notebook rather than an unlined one. If you’d like to illustrate your quotes, think about choosing a sketchbook rather than traditional notebook.

  • The I’m-not-ready-for-commitment option: index cards in a box. Easy to shuffle around if you change your mind about what heading to put a quote under and if you make a mistake, no worries. Toss the card and try again.
  • The environmentally-friendly DIY option: make your own commonplace book with scrap paper. Here’s a tutorial.
  • The old standby option: Moleskine journals.
  • The splurge option: invest in a leather journal. Here’s one example from Chapters (bookstores are a good place to look for journals/notebooks), and an indie version from Etsy.

Digital Options

If you know a notebook is just not going to work for you—maybe you really hate your handwriting or it’s completely illegible—but you think there might be some merit to keeping a private commonplace book, here are some offline and/or private digital alternatives that are superior to a neverending Word document.

Online Options

Finally, here are some public options for those of you who crave the social in social media. I’ve included some very non-traditional alternatives here, to illustrate that you can create a commonplace book almost anywhere.

  • A blog, such as WordPress or Tumblr, is the most versatile online option. Both give you the option of quoting, linking, sharing photos and video—as well as liking and reblogging others’ posts.
  • Delicious. Use the “description” box to copy a quote from the page you’re bookmarking.
  • Goodreads. Add quotes to “Quotes You Like” or like ones already added by other users. You can arrange your quotes in any order.
  • Twitter. Make use of retweets and favorites, as well as tweeting your own thoughts.
  • Pinterest. Here’s the board Baker started for Toasted Cheese, which includes illustrated quotations and writing humor. The limitation of Pinterest is that pins must include an image, but if you find inspiration in the visual as well as the textual, this might be an option for you.
  • Flickr. Another visually-oriented option. Favorites can reveal themes over time, as I realized when I looked at my page. Once you’ve identified a theme, you can use a gallery to collect images based on it. In galleries, there’s a space for adding text to each photo you select. Here are galleries of old books, people sleeping in libraries, empty spaces (shows how text can be added to the left of the images), and illustrated quotes.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to limit yourself to a single option. You can keep both a private book and a public blog or a text-focused commonplace and a more visual one. The beauty of the commonplace book is that it’s your book—you can make it whatever you like.

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