My commonplace book and why everyone should keep one

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. 

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