The latest trend in self improvement is the bullet journal or the “analog system for the digital age.” The system, invented by digital product designer Ryder Carroll, allows users to turn a blank notebook into a to-do list, diary, notebook, and sketchbook. The bullet journal is especially helpful for those with tasks coming from multiple directions, and who need an organized plan of action that favors rapid-fire note-taking and prioritization. With the increasing number of technological ways to store information, it is nice to see the traditional blank notebook receiving fresh attention.
While the blank notebook basks in the limelight, I thought it might be fitting to discuss the commonplace book, the long tradition of using a blank notebook for storing and organizing information for later use. The commonplace book differs from bullet journals in that it is devoted to knowledge-making, and not necessarily planning out one’s life. A commonplace book is not a journal at all, as John Locke writes: “Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”
The commonplace book is an excellent tool for readers, helping memorialize words, phrases, quotes, passages, and images. Further, it creates an accessible reference book you can use forever and pass along to others. After providing an introduction to the commonplace book tradition, I will introduce my own experiences to help you start your own commonplace book. Like the bullet journal, you only need a blank notebook and a pen.
What is a Commonplace Book?
A commonplace book “contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler” (Harvard University Libraries). These books are traditionally handwritten and may include drawings and clippings from outside sources. Organization is as unique as the writer, but information is arranged so as to ensure accessibility. As writer and poet Jonathon Swift explains in “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet,” the commonplace book keeps the remarkable in our memory:
A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories;” and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.
Commonplace books are a tradition spanning from the Middle Ages to today. The concept originated from commonplaces in ancient Greece and Rome, categories under which orators could place ideas, arguments, and rhetorical turn of phrases for later use. As most concepts in antiquity have, commonplaces would be re-purposed. In the middle ages and early modern period the florilegium (gathering of flowers) collected passages from religious and theological works (Harvard Libraries). The zibaldone appeared in fourteenth century Italy and was used by merchants to keep records of daily life and activities.
Its height of popularity was during the Renaissance and early modern period, where “students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organizing and arranging excerpts” (Harvard Libraries). Although focused on the individual, commonplace books have been both published and passed down to later generations, a sort of autobiography of the mind.
Many famous thinkers and leaders kept commonplace books, including the following:
- Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft kept a commonplace book filled with “ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction.”
- Thomas Jefferson kept two commonplace books for literary matters and another for legal matters.
- Writer and activist Nancy Cunard kept a commonplace book full of quotes and poems by her friends.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shared a commonplace book about poetry.
- American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton kept a commonplace book with “private notes, correspondence (to and from Elizabeth Cady Stanton), diaristic writings, literary transcriptions, and pasted-in engravings of various European tourist sites.”
- Scientist Carl Linnaeus kept commonplace books to help systematize his findings.
How to Create A Commonplace Book: One Example
To keep a commonplace book you only need a blank notebook and a writing utensil; the content and arrangement is up to you as the compiler. I found my method has been developed through time and influenced by other commonplace books. Thus, I thought my own experience with this genre might provide you some ideas for starting your own.
As a child, I spent a lot of my time researching paranormal history and reading ghost stories and folklore. I was overwhelmed by the terminology and theories, and began keeping a notebook filled with handwritten notes, drawings, and articles I printed from the internet. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I was participating in the tradition of commonplace books. I still, to this day, keep a commonplace book on the occult.
When I approach a blank commonplace book, I designate two sections in the front (table of contents) and back (glossary). Then, I number the pages accordingly. Whenever I am ready to start a new subject of inquiry, I write a title in bold at the top of the new page and make sure I repeat that title in my table of contents. Other practices I have developed over time include:
- Instead of a glossary (in some cases), I made text boxes with key terms throughout the book, and then made an index in the back with the words and page numbers.
- For information that doesn’t fit into a current section and does not warrant a new section (I call this “purgatory information”), I write it on a post-it and place it on the inside back cover. When its time has come, I simply move the the post-it to its new section.
- To highlight key materials, I use highlighting and color-coding.
- To enhance my understanding of complicated material, I occasionally create visual maps, tables, infographics, etc. For example, when reading about types of ghosts, I created a table that outlined their characteristics into columns.
- When a desired passage from a source is too long, I am not afraid to print or make copies of the material. I tape or glue it into my commonplace book, and then write notes in the margins or highlight.
- Materials I include in my “commonplace book pouch”: colored pencils, a nice pen (I like Sharpie black pens), tape, scissors, stickers, and highlighters.
- I have used different notebooks for different commonplace books. My notebooks are usually lined, because I prefer writing. Though, I have used sketchbooks when my commonplace books incorporate more visuals than text.
- I always recommend using a sturdy notebook so your commonplace book will last (and may appear in an archive someday).
- I have been inspired by textbooks, so I often incorporate text boxes, sidebars, headings/subheadings, bulleted lists, etc.
- I have, inspired by Virginia Woolf, kept a list of books I have read and a list of books to read in some of my commonplace books (as a sort of appendix).
This is one compiler’s approach to keeping a commonplace book. I suggest looking through examples online for ideas (I have linked some examples earlier and there’s archive.org). I also suggest letting your first commonplace be a trial run. You will develop your own unique system over time, and you may create different systems for different types of commonplace books you keep. There are some rather dated guides for writing commonplace books too, if you are so inclined (You could start with Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books or Eramus’ De Copia).
In The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, Robert Darnton speaks to me in regards to why we keep commonplace books:
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.
There is no system for keeping a commonplace book, like the bullet journal. The reasons to keep one are so varied and the subject areas so diverse. And, I fear promoting one might interfere with your own personal “stamp.” Although you’ll be inspired by a mix of compilers, this book in the end will represent you.
Blair, Ann. “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 52, no. 4, 1992, pp. 541-551.
Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places. New York University Press, 2009.
Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. Public Affairs, 2009.