I hadn’t given much thought to the commonplace book until recently. I’d heard the term in passing before, usually in books, but never really stopped to consider it. However, earlier this month I was talking to a professor at my former college, who upon learning about my journaling pursuits mentioned that he didn’t keep a journal but kept a commonplace book. It was a norm, particularly in higher education when he was growing up. As he is very intelligent, and really believes in learning as a lifelong activity, I thought there must be some merit to a method he’s been employing all these years. The idea of a commonplace book took root in my mind.
Of course any kind of new “notebook keeping” is bound to get me curious, so yesterday, I spent hours researching the finer details of the commonplace book.
What is a commonplace book?
Originally, a commonplace book was a central place where you collected knowledge that you can refer back to at a later date. The practice began in ancient times when books were scarce, and most people wouldn’t have been able to keep a large library. In order to remember, and to be able to revisit everything they found of value, they collected it in a commonplace book.
According to Wikipedia:
“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis (from Greek tópos koinós…) which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom.
The translation was obviously not done by the greatest mind since they term something “commonplace” which is actually not at all common. A commonplace book was a collection of passages and quotes that were of importance to the reader, and the entire exercise of keeping such a book required one to possess an intellectual disposition and an interest in knowledge, whether to use it or simply for its own sake.
Over time this method of keeping a commonplace book evolved. As books became more widely available and education became accessible to more people than just the rich, a commonplace book became something that people used to collect passages and quotes from their personal reading, often organised by topics. John Milton, Emerson, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Napolean, Marcus Aurelius, W H Auden are just a few of the famous people who kept a commonplace book. As one of my Kaizen Journaling reader, Samantha Russell, pointed out on the facebook page, Sherlock Holmes refers to his commonplace book in the stories. I would love to have a peek at his commonplace book.
How is a commonplace book different from a journal
Let’s be clear: a commonplace book is not a journal.
Journal or a diary is chronological, and more centred on your life. They may include facts, introspections….or a combination of both. They may also include quotes and passages you collect. However, the whole point of a journal is that it is about you, and therefore the majority of words in it are yours.
A commonplace book is where you collect other people’s words. Some people leave it strictly at that. Others will include their response to the things they quote, perhaps a reason for including it, or any questions it might make them ask. I’m with the latter group. I wouldn’t want to collect passages merely for the sake of collecting, because while it might make sense at the time, I may not remember five years later why it was important.
I like how William Coe described it:
The key word for the commonplace book is “annotated.” It is not just an anthology; the compiler reacts to the passages he has chosen or tells what the passages have led him to think about. A piece of prose, a poem, an aphorism can trigger the mind to consider a parallel, to dredge something from the memory, or perhaps to speculate with further range and depth on the same them.
Should you keep a commonplace book
As soon as I did my initial research, I was sold on the idea. I wanted my own commonplace book, and I was already regretting that I didn’t know about it sooner. However, for each of us, it would be different. I want my commonplace book to serve a specific purpose because I already keep a regular journal.
I will talk about my personal plans for the commonplace book in the next post. If you are thinking about keeping one, think about how it would serve you. The reason for doing so is to remain motivated, long term, to continue adding to it. Otherwise, you may end up with a mostly blank book.
Virginia Woolf described this ill-fate with her usual literary panache:
Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.
Though it may seem like an antiquated concept, keeping a collection of wisdom in the age of electronics, I think it is all the more valuable because of it. We live in an age where information is zooming past us faster than we can digest it. Something like a commonplace book gives you an opportunity to pause, reflect, and digest what you learn.
Have you ever kept a commonplace book? Share your tips in the comments.