Friday, May 11, 2012

The Joys of the Commonplace Book

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)


  1. I do keep a commonplace book, but I'm sort of haphazard and undisciplined about it. I'll go through phases where I copy something from just about every book I read, and then I'll set it aside for months and not copy out anything, despite finding passages that I'd like to preserve. And sometimes I do better posting quotes online on my Tumblr or on Goodreads. As I said, it's haphazard :)

  2. Yes, I also keep a commonplace book and have been doing so for years. I keep it in an electronic Word document on my computer. And it consists now of over two volumes of priceless passages from the books and essays I've read.

    If you would like a copy of my long essay on the topic, please write to me at

    You might also consider taking a look at my blog, where I write about some of the books and essays I've read.

    Thank you for your blog on commonplace books that I found in a Google Alert I keep on the topic.

    Richard Katzev

  3. What an interesting topic! I do not have a commonplace book, although I suppose my notebooks are used in a similar way (when I actually write in them). My book blog is a virtual commonplace book, or at least a scrapbook or a notebook, which helps me to remember and share my reading.

  4. Teresa - yes, I'm finding I note passages in my book reviews sometimes rather that copy them out into my original books. It's a great way to recall them; but I do try to write them into my commonplace book eventually to keep all the inspiration together!

    Richard - wow, what a wonderful blog you have! So much to read and explore. Amazing that you have gathered so much content into your own commonplace books as well. My brief mention of the topic is just a comment on my own practice; I'd love to read your essay. Will get in touch.

    Suko - the good thing about keeping a record online is that you can easily categorize and add new things. Mine are organized only by my own fancy and depend on my memory as the search function ;)

  5. What an interesting idea. I have often writen down passages that have interested me but not in a book. I shall now go out and buy me a soft cover lined book and start this project.

  6. Hi, I keep a commonplace book as well. I toyed with the idea for a while and then after reading about how they were used originally in the 18th century (with subject headings and an index) I decided that's what I wanted rather than just a book of quotations. Really handy when I am trying to compare works, authors or just building my opinion on a particular idea. Lovely to 'meet' another commonplacer!

  7. I've kept a commonplace book since high school. Some years I am better at keeping up with it than others. Recently I started a tumblr account and add quotes there on a semi-regular basis.

  8. Love the idea of a commonplace book but I've never actually kept one. I have a book journal, which I've kept for seven years. Enjoyed reading your post.

  9. I have such a notebook (I use basic composition notebooks from the store). I don't include every book I read - If I am in love with the writing I almost always jot passages down as well as reflections on what I am reading. Some times I just jot page numbers to refer back to when writing a review on to a large post-it note. Sometimes I go back and add some of those quotes to the notebook.

  10. I actually have a couple of books on the go. One with random quotes, one with book quotes and one with ideas.

    I love that I'm not the only one that does this though!

  11. I didn't know that's what they were called. Yes, I've kept them; used to keep separate journals for all sorts of things but found it awkward to have so many; I'd be reading where the bookish one wasn't, for instance. So now I keep just one journal on the go at a time and into this I note everything and when it's done I go through it and 'file' things in appropriate places. And then dispose of the handwritten version.

    I know. Harsh. But the alternative is bins of journals that are never read.

    The only things I keep are my poetry journals. I still write those separately.

    As usual, you pose an interesting question...

  12. jennifer - thanks for commenting; I hope you will find a book to use -- I find it keeps all those great quotes together and allows me to go over them again and rediscover them at a later date.

    Alex - you're doing it right! I sometimes wish I'd begun in that manner; with subject headings and index. But I can't be bothered to go back and redo all four notebooks ;)

    stefanie - glad to hear you're also a commonplacer! I am not fanatic about it but when I'm reading and something jumps out at me I'm glad I have a place to gather it up for later consideration.

    Vintage Reading - I don't keep a proper reading journal (just a list of titles & authors read) My blog serves as a kind of reading journal but I don't mention every book so it's a bit slapdash in that regard.

    pburt - I use postits while reading to mark the passages I want to refer to in reviews and to note the excerpts I want to copy out as well. I'd like to have a proper reading journal where I also note down my experience of reading a book...keep meaning to do it!

  13. Duck Thief - I love to keep notebooks. I have my commonplace ones, my 'writing journal' in which I note ideas or references I'd like to use, and my personal journals. So enjoyable for me.

    Carin - harsh!! :) I like that you use a general notebook to write in first and then file and organize. The best of both worlds... though keeping all your poetry separate makes sense.

  14. I've enjoyed reading the thoughts and comments here because I've been re-thinking my notebook-ness. Having moved some previously-notebook-things to the computer (like booklogs and reading notes, mostly but not entirely), I find myself experimenting with different formats and ways of organizing (and not) all the way around. Some days, that's exciting, and others, it's a ball of frustration and longing for a new set of coloured pens!

  15. BIP - I think that I'll never be able to move to the computer even though it would be much more searchable, simply because I love to search out notebooks with great covers and to use coloured pens :)


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