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My Commonplace Book and Why Everyone Should Keep One

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 image by brbl

 

Make your own Bible. Select and Collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.

– Emerson Journals July 1836

 

I previously talked about the commonplace bookwhat it is and where it comes from. My research into the concept made me motivated to start my own commonplace book.

Why Do I Want to Keep A Commonplace Book 

As a regular journal keeper, I had to consider how this was going to work. My journal captures my life, or at least parts of it. I also have a quote journal, which while not regularly used is a place where I collect quotes. These quotes come from anywhere, and are not necessarily part of my reading. As much as the idea of keeping a commonplace book appealed to me, I wanted it to be something worthwhile so that I wouldn’t stop doing it once the novelty wore off.

I want my commonplace book to be about something specific, so I decided it would be a thing I use to improve as a reader and as a writer. In essence it will be a reading journal, but the notion of calling it a commonplace book feels far more romantic.

It differs slightly from a reading journal because the focus in the commonplace book is on other people’s words. In a reading journal, I might be too lazy to copy entire passages and may simply refer to the page numbers from the book. However, the point of a commonplace book is to write down quotes and passages you want to preserve. You make the work and the words your own, by transcribing them, and by digesting them.

Building Expertise

However, just because it’s for a specific purpose does not mean it’s limited. Think about what it would mean to be a better reader. You would read more and wide. You would read fiction and non-fiction, books, articles, essays and poems. All of these formats and ideas would bring you in contact with just about any issue humanity has faced or will face, as well as with a range of human emotions. For a reader, no book stands alone. Each story, each essay….every new sentence, it builds upon the material you have already explored. With each new piece of literature, you are not starting the journey, you are merely continuing it. 

Writing is the same. You may start a new article or a new book, but the writing ability you have today, is the result of all the words you’ve written in the past. 

Your commonplace book can be a place to see this evolution for whatever topic interests you, or whatever your purpose may be. You can see where you were when you started, and how far you’ve come. Have you finally read the classics you always meant to read? Have you finally figured out just how to appreciate Virginia Woolf’s works, or understand that Oscar Wilde’s sarcasm is so powerful because it is always coated in truth? 

Your commonplace book can be a place where you continue to build your expertise in one or more area by continuously mining the best information from available resources, by recording  your responses to it, and then using that information to come to your own conclusions and making personal associations.

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.

– Seneca

A Tool for Personal Evolution and Assessment

A commonplace book can also be a record of personal evolution. As I read, as my taste changes, as my knowledge increases (hopefully), and as my mind gets used to making more and more connections between various pieces of literature, as well as between literature and life, this will be reflected in my commonplace book. A commonplace book therefore can be both a tool for self-growth, and self-analysis.

One gets a pretty good idea of a man, his likes and prejudices, his quirks and manias, the variousness of his mind from reading a commonplace book. 

– William Cole

I want my commonplace book to be a place where I take the time to not only enjoy but to explore my reading, to make associations between literature and life, to learn how great writers did things, and to use it for continuous improvement. It will be a record of my Kaizen Reading

Are you keeping a commonplace book? What would you want to use it for? 

 

 

A Commonplace Book


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image by bluefootedbooby

 

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. 

Overtime 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 are 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 the 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. 

 

 

 

 

 

Commonplace Book: Electronic or Hand-Written

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My DoctorWho Moleskine by Dolly Garland

 

Once I made up my mind to keep a commonplace book, the next big decision was whether to keep an electronic commonplace book or a hand-written one.

Let’s look at both:

Electronic Commonplace Book

In my research I found that many people today do use various electronic mediums. Those who don’t mind sharing their entries, use a blog, Tumblr or similar platform. Others use applications such as Evernote. Many however simply keep a giant Word file that they keep adding to.

The main advantage of keeping an electronic commonplace book is that it is much easier to organize. If you want to look for specific topics, or even specific entries, you can just use the search function and find what you are looking for. You can add multi-media, website links, pictures, and can make it interactive. It requires no physical storage space, and as long as you remember to back up your files, it can be safely maintained for a long period of time.

The disadvantage is that the temptation to cheat will always be a factor. Instead of typing up the passages and quotes, and slowly taking in every word, you may be tempted to just copy/paste the information, or type it up like you are practising for the world’s fastest secretary role. Doing so will defeat the purpose of keeping a commonplace book.

Another disadvantage, which is a big deal for me, is the lack of truly personal touch. Yes, you can use themes or include your graphics, and of course information you include is to your taste, but the fact remains that electronic information does not have the personal touch of hand-written items. 

Hand-Written Commonplace Book

Hand-written commonplace book is the old-fashioned method. This is how it originated, and you could argue that there were no computers in those days, but the purpose behind it is the same today. By slowly and accurately copying passages and quotes from your reading material, you can take the time to savour the book. You don’t only read, but you digest the information, and reflect upon it. 

As a long-term journal keeper, and having experimented with e-journaling before, I am convinced that you miss out on something special when you don’t write important things down by hand. Hand-writing is a physical act. You are making the connection between the page, your words, and your mind. By keeping a hand-written commonplace book, you make it incredibly personal, because your commonplace book will not look like anyone else’s. 

Another advantage of having a hand-written commonplace book is the tactile pleasure. Keeping a commonplace book properly is not necessarily an easy task. There will be times when you just want to read the book, and not worry about retaining information. There will be times when copying things down will feel like a chore. The more pleasurable your method of keeping a commonplace book is, the less likely you are to procrastinate or give up. 

Once I knew I had to keep a hand-written commonplace book, I looked through all the new notebooks I currently have in my house. There were no spare moleskines, but there was a notebook identical to the one I’m using for my quote journal. I thought that would be suitable, so I even removed the plastic wrapper. But my heart wasn’t in it. It just didn’t feel right. I wanted, most of all, to have plain pages not ruled. But all my currently available notebooks were ruled. After sleeping on it, I ordered a new plain moleskine, and felt immediately better. It was the right choice for me, because having a plain page as opposed to a ruled page is an important issue for me, as is the size and the quality of the notebook. Moleskins are one of my most favourite brands, and though I use a variety of personal journals, I have this image in my mind of keeping many identical commonplace books over the next several decades. 

Think about what matters to you, and what works for you. What will make this experience a pleasurable activity? Aesthetically pleasing, but also practical. If you intend to write on the go, don’t buy a heavy A4 notebook. Always mix creative choices with practical application.

As you can no doubt tell from the above, I’m completely on the side of the hand-written commonplace book. Unless you have a problem (medical or otherwise) which prevents you from being able to write by hand, you would gain a lot more by keeping a hand-written commonplace book as opposed to an electronic one.

Of course keeping an electronic commonplace book is better than keeping none at all.

What do you think? Would you choose an electronic method, or go the old-fashioned way?