Commonplace Books: A Personal Record of Learning and Self-Development
What Are Commonplace Books?
A commonplace book is more than a simple recording or listing of such things; it is also a personal place to comment on and develop responses to what you have read, researched, and experienced, such as favorite quotes, passages of poetry, family recipes, travel highlights, subjects studied, etc. A commonplace book not only records what is relevant to you but also, the growth and development which comes out of your experience with what interests you. The pages may include art, pictures, momentoes, etc., as a response to your experience, but your written response should never be secondary to these things; commonplace books are not scrapbooks.
Commonplaces have been kept by many people over many centuries, some famous (the photo above shows a page of Walt Whitman's commonplace book) and some not so famous. They lend insight into the way people think, create and respond to their time and place.
History of the Commonplace Book
The term commonplace is a literal translation of locus communis. The Latin words mean "a place to collect common items or thoughts." The idea of collecting items and ideas that have a general meaning or idea in common, and writing them in one place, started about the fifth century BC, as a way to save and organize important information to be kept for reference. Such famous writers and thinkers as Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, the Younger kept commonplaces.
Because books were scarce and information hard to come by for so long, commonplace books were kept throughout the centuries by people who could read and write. If a person could afford a book of his or her own, he certainly wouldn't want to write in it, so developing a commonplace book of the ideas from the book read and recording what was important to the reader, was a valuable learning and reference tool. If the reader later borrowed a similar book, he couldn't write in it either, but he could add the new ideas and information to his commonplace.
Commonplacing allowed anyone to become a writer who then produced personal and valuable material.
Commonplace books became very popular during the Renaissance when printing machines increased reading material and the ability to read spread. Readers copied, by long-hand, passages they wished to remember, which gave them time to think about the meaning and style of the work. Often times, the commonplace books were shared and written in by more than one person in order to study, add to and disseminate information.
Commonplaces were also an aid to study and preparation in schools from the Middle Ages on. Such famous scholars and writers as John Milton, John Locke (who came up with an indexing system for commonplacing), Erasmus (his De copia, 1512, set the standard for commonplacing), and Martin Luther wrote commonplace books of their own which offer insight into their thinking and teaching, while documenting their own learning.
Later poets and writers such as Samuel Coleridge, Johnathan Swift, Samuel Butler, and Charles Sumner (his commonplace is on the law) kept commonplace books on various subjects. Above is an example of two pages of Abraham Lincoln's commonplace book which he kept while he prepared for his senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858. Other Americans who have been influenced by the European tradition and kept commonplaces are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Washington Irving, and many more people who wrote anonymously or who are not famous, but were interested in learning throughout their lifetimes.
Many writers today keep commonplaces, often in the form of blogs. But, for most people over the last half of the 20th century, the practice of recording important thoughts and events has changed into scrapbooking and personal journaling. While these are similar, they are not the same as commonplacing, which emphasizes self-education based on focused reading and personal response.
How to Start Your Own Commonplace Book
Anyone Can Do It!
Before you start, remember this rule: commonplace books focus on personal, continuing education. Their contents should inspire, provoke thought, and be important enough to be permanent. What you write in yours is a reflection of who and what you are during the years you keep them. Although you aren't keeping a journal per se, it's a good idea to jot down dates and places in your entries.
You can keep a manual or digital book--or find an app that works on your phone--that's up to you; choose the method that's best for you.
And...don't forget to use your commonplace book. Carry it with you or take notes you can transfer into it later.
One way to keep a commonplace book is to use a three-ring binder and divide it into sections. This way you can add paper and organize it more easily. This kind of commonplace makes it easy to keep one book going at a time with various topics organized by section. If you don't want to glue items onto pages, find a notebook with built-in pockets. Use different color paper and pens to help you organize and illustrate the pages.
Save a few pages at the end of the commonplace book for an index. Organize it alphabetically or by topic and page number. Remember that it will not be perfectly organized since you're adding entries as you go, but it will be organized enough to help you find what you want later.
If you are keeping more than one commonplace book at a time, based on one topic per book, you may not need to index it. For example, I keep a commonplace of random quotes I like such as Sicilian proverbs, and quotes from readings, movies, sermons, etc. I enjoy thumbing through it when I'm looking for a particular quote. It isn't dated or focused on any one topic. This commonplace is made out of an old composition book that one of my students left in my classroom. I cut out the few pages he'd used, covered the scruffy exterior with the end of some decorative paper I had, and started writing down quotes. I write only on one side of the page in case I want to comment on the facing page. It is small enough to keep handy and it was free.
Your commonplace book doesn't have to be expensive. The main characteristic is that it should have plain or lined pages. Avoid "inspirational" journals with writing prompts printed on each page. I use composition books, spiral notebooks, small binders, etc. I am even using an old teacher-planning book for my gardening commonplace book where I collect information on how the vegetable garden is progressing, and ideas for succession and rotation planting for our Southern California climate.
Time to Start Your Own!
Record Your Continuing Self-Education.
For centuries people have continued their educations beyond their school years, keeping commonplace books to record their self-chosen studies, their responses, and their thinking. The famous teaching-preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote and re-wrote his commonplace book over many years as he prepared famous sermons such as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." The pages here show folded and added pages, as well as notations penned during his studies. It is a record to be studied today for the sake of understanding Edwards and the society of his time.
Recently I began an on-line Latin course and keeping a dedicated commonplace book. Studying Latin was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. I record lessons, comment on my learning, re-teach myself when I find weak points, and jot down Latin phrases which I come across in so much of my other reading. For years, I had no idea what a phrase meant until I looked it up. Now, I'm beginning to understand some of those phrases within their English sentence contexts. Although I'll never speak and write Latin fluently, it's fun! I'm beginning to feel somewhat erudite!
My Latin commonplace book is a record of my learning and my reflections on my learning, an ever-evolving resource as I add to and refer to it over time.
While most of us will never become famous personalities, brilliant scholars, or writers with a cult following, we do have the capability to learn and grow in our interests. Curiosity and experimentation are inborn in us. Recording and reflecting on what we learn is a unique human trait.
Your Personal Book
As you can see, writing a commonplace book is a personal record of what you love to study and ponder. It's a creative outlet for your thoughts and inspirations. It all happens in your own timing and there are no deadlines to meet. When you take a break from learning, it is a pleasure to read
through and, perhaps, add some new thoughts to a few of your favorite entries. However often you write, or don't write, your commonplace book is a document which reflects your innermost self.
Are you intrigued? Will you start and keep a commonplace book? What will it be about? How will you use it for other projects?