Commonplace book (n.):
an edited collection of striking passages noted in a single place for future reference
Do you have a commonplace book? A notebook in which you copy out passages, quotes or witty wordplay from the books you are reading? I started my first commonplace book in university, when I was reading intensely and awash in words. There were so many deep thoughts, beautiful passages, and useful tips to record. Though unaware of the long tradition of the commonplace book at the time, I knew that I wanted to gather all these bits of wisdom in one place so I wouldn’t lose track of them.
I went out searching for a suitable notebook: my plan was to purchase a large, sturdy, impressive looking book that would remind me of the value of all these words that these accomplished authors were sharing. But, while at the stationery section of a local bookshop, a plain, lined, softcover notebook caught my eye. On the cover, it had a pen and ink sketch of a 19th century explorer riding into the jungle on an elephant. The colours, the typography and the image of riding into the dense forest all spoke to me of this quest I’d set out on to record the gems from my reading.
So that was my first commonplace book, which lasted me most of my university years. Then I moved on to my second, third, and now fourth commonplace books. I’ve set the pattern for myself; I prefer softcover notebooks with lined pages, but no margins. I like those with pretty covers — I’ve had two botanical prints and one cheery bicycle doodle on the varied covers. When I’m feeling scattered, or a bit blue, or just short of inspiration, I will pull them out and page through them. Not only do I get my fill of wonderful writing, amusing lines, and pithy sayings, I get a reminder of who I was when I first read those lines. I recall why they were first important to me and wonder at how I’ve changed. And I love to mark passages in my current reading, knowing I’ll spend a comfortable evening copying them out in future.
”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. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word…. 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. . . . The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.”
~ Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000
Do you keep a commonplace book? What is your method?
(first published in slightly different form at Four Rooms Creative Self Care)