An Introduction to the Commonplace Book

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

I recently stumbled on the idea of the commonplace book via Ryan Holiday of Thought Catalog‘s post, “How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book.” That post lead me to search Twitter for the popularity of the idea which lead me to two books by Richard Katzev: A Commonplace Book Primer and A Literary Collage: Annotating My Commonplace Book. As is the way of the internet, that led me  to Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book and by that time my head was swirling with the idea of  starting one of my own.

I’ve been keeping something akin to a commonplace book in notebooks and online for a few years, but I’ve never implemented a comprehsneive system. I type up or write up notes on the books I read, I write in the margins, and sometimes I compile my thoughts into blog posts. But, nothing mandatory or systematic. Without a system I still have to rely on memory to uncover the right notebook when I want to revisit a passage.

Katzev describes his process, and I think it’s a good introduction to the idea:

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way. When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and its source if it is from a periodical. At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

Ryan Holiday describes his, very different, process:

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

I’m not sure which method is superior. With a project like this it’s best to make it your own. That’ll make it more likely to stick. Steal what you like from the practitioners that came before you. There are a many examples available online.

To Katzev, one of the key components of the commonplace book is the transcription of long passages from the books you’ve read. This kind of work is tedious. There are shortcuts. Katzev would argue that the shortcuts take away from the overall intent of keeping a commonplace book–which is to force some form of muscle memory to interact with the words. This visceral interaction is key for some.

If you prefer the shortcut and read with a Kindle you could easily use the Kindle: Your Highlights function to remove the need for tedious transcription. (You will need to log in to your Amazon.com account to access this feature.) Highlight with your Kindle as you read and the highlights automatically appear. From Kindle: Your Highlights you can copy and paste to your application of preference. This frees up time for you to annotate the passages you’ve read. This method has the added advantage of allowing you to use Kindle’s “Daily Review” function to review your highlighted passages and annotations as if they the passages were printed on notecards.

Katzev also discusses the value of annotating your commonplace book. Your thoughts, as you read a particular passage, are valuable to you, to your loved ones, and for your writing. The annotations can serve as source material for articles or blog posts or as a kind of diary of the remembrances invoked by your reading.

The beauty of the commonplace book is that it makes the act of reading and writing inseparable. Reading inspires writing which inspires more reading.

Emerson, in his Journals, July 1836, compared the activity to making your own bible. His take was, if you collect all the words and sentences that mean something to you, you are performing an activity that will provide a reference for future use, a book you could pull out when you needed an answer or to be uplifted. I believe it would make a fine keepsake to pass on to descendants, but there’s no harm in deciding to keep it private.

Some keepers of commonplace books, including John Locke in the 17th century, create systems to categorize and organize the passages they’ve noted. Storing your entries electronically would certainly make that task either easier or unnecessary because of the search functions available in tools like Evernote and on Amazon. The balancing act is to keep the system simple enough that you’re not discouraged from using it.

There are no hard rules when it comes to what to include in a commonplace book, basically, you note what interests you. And, isn’t that the question we ask constantly as we read anyway? “What resonates with me?” or “What in this book is consistent with my experience?”

As Katzev points out, reading is a passive activity unless we do something about that. By putting a pen in our hand or by doing something like keeping a commonplace book we turn reading into active reading. Active interaction aids our memories. The commonplace book becomes a tool we can use to refresh our minds–to recall important sentences and words.

A commonplace book could become a sort of reading memoir. There’s no doubt that the passages we pay attention to and take time to record must say something about who we are or who we’d like to be. Imagine having access to a commonplace book your grandfather consistently used.

As Alain de Botton has said more eloquently,

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader of his own self of what the books says is proof it its veracity.

A commonplace book gives you the tool to re-read yourself and Chris Ciolli has talked about the value of re-reading here before. It can be a tool to analyze and track your own evolution. As you age, your thoughts about certain passages will change and in that change you can experience your changing self.

My suggestion: Just start with what seems natural. I intend to evolve my commonplace book entries into a better system in 2014.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to become a better reader and, hopefully, a better person.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory.

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