Project: Start a Commonplace Book

Written by on May 15, 2009 in Basics Of Self Education, Learning Tips - 11 Comments

commonplaceookCreating a commonplace book can help you keep track of your educational journey. It’s a place to record favorite quotes from the books you read, ideas you have, and questions that arise from your studies.

Over time, your commonplace book will turn into a record of who you’ve been and how you’ve changed. You can use it to track the progress you’ve made and reflect on the thoughts that have shaped your life. This article will show you how to get started.

What is a Commonplace Book?

A commonplace book is essentially a scrapbook / compilation of information that the creator deems relevant. Commonplace books became popular with thinkers in 15th century England and were eventually promoted as a scholarly tool by major universities such as Yale and Harvard.

Wikipedia puts it this way:

“Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books…

Such books were essentially books filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.”

Personal commonplace books were used by many great writers and thinkers including John Milton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, and Mark Twain.

How Are Modern Commonplace Books Used?

You can, of course, put anything you want in a commonplace book. However, the advent of the internet has made itcommonplacebook2 rather unnecessary to copy down the facts and charts that were recorded in earlier times. Since such info is so readily available, many scholars now use their commonplace books solely as a place to record their intellectual pursuits.

One of the best ways to use a commonplace book is record your interactions with the books you read. Whether you’re studying the classics, devouring science volumes, or doing an in-depth investigation into a particular subject, a commonplace book can help you keep track of important quotes, respond to the text, make connections, and develop your own ideas.

In The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, Susan Wise Bauer explains the process of using a commonplace book while reading:

“The journal used for self-education should model itself after this extended type of commonplace book. It is neither an unadorned collection of facts, nor an entirely inward account of what’s going on in your heart and soul. Rather, the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader’s own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought. As you read, you should follow this three-part process: jot own specific phrases, sentences, an paragraphs as you come across them; when you’ve finished your reading, go back and write a brief summary of what you’ve learned; an then write your own reflections, questions, and thoughts.”

Using a commonplace book in this way will add a new dimension of depth to your reading. Instead of being a static, one-sided activity, reading will become a dynamic experience.

In the article “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton explains how keeping such a commonplace book changed the nature of reading for early autodidacts (and how it can change the way you read today):

“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. . .They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. 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 New York Review of Books, 2000)

Keeping a commonplace book will probably prevent you from passively skimming over the words in a book. You may not be able to read while lying down; but your understanding of the material is likely to increase by leaps and bounds.

How to Start a Commonplace Book

Creating a commonplace book is actually very simple. Remembering to take it off the shelf and add to your entries is the hard part.

Step 1: Choose Your Medium

commonplace Like journals, commonplace books vary. You can choose a blank, hard-bound book, a cheap spiral notebook, or a pricy moleskin book. Some people prefer to use a three-ring binder for their commonplace book so that pages can easily be added or removed.

Alternatively, you may prefer to create a digital commonplace book. Journaling software or even a word processing program will work. I keep my commonplace book (pictured here) on Microsoft’s OneNote, where I can create a new tab for each section.

If you don’t mind making your private thoughts public, you may choose to use a blog as your commonplace book. You can select your own domain and use a blogging platform such as WordPress. Or, you can make use Blogger to create a simple, no-cost blog.

Step 2: Choose Your Content

Next, you’ll need to decide how to use your commonplace book.

As you’ve seen, commonplace books can be an excellent way to keep track of your reading. If you choose to use your book as a kind of reading log, you may want to include the following components:

  • Lists of books to read
  • Quotes from books you’re reading
  • Book summaries in your own words
  • Your reactions / thoughts about books you’ve finished

Remember that this is your book – you can choose to include anything that you want to remember or come back to. Here are some other things you may want to store in your commonplace book: favorite recipes, quotes from your favorite movies, a list of your heroes, life goals, poems, insights into life, travelogues, important photos, clippings from newspapers, etc.

Step 3: Choose an Organizational System

You may want to have separate sections for books lists, quotes, and other topics, or you may prefer to have all the information in one place. You can organize your commonplace book by adding dividers to your three ring binder, stick-on tabs to your notebook/moleskin, or links to your virtual book.

Decide how you want to organize your commonplace book before you begin writing. That way you won’t be frustrated when searching for entries as the book grows.

Step 3: Keep it Up

Once you’ve started a commonplace book, keep up the work. In a few years, you’ll have an amazing record the books you’ve read, the subjects you’ve studied, and the way your self-education has affected your life.

Share Your Commonplace Book

If you don’t mind sharing, I’d love to publish a collage of sample pages from commonplace books. Often it’s hard to visualize, and a set of pictures would help future readers get a better idea of how they can begin this project.

You can send a photo of your commonplace book (or a screenshot, if you have a digital one) to selfmadscholar at gmail.com. The page doesn’t have to be completely legible in the picture; it just needs to show how a commonplace book can look.

Once I have enough photos, I’ll post on this subject again.

Photo Credits:

Photo 1: Beinecke Flickr Laboratory – Anonymous manuscript containing poems by various authors, in various hands. Includes Shakespeare’s second sonnet.

Photo 2: ChrisL_AK – My commonplace book of quotations and pictures using the Moleskine japanese fold style notebook

11 Comments on "Project: Start a Commonplace Book"

  1. Arp May 15, 2009 at 6:19 pm · Reply

    This is a great idea. I often mark up the books I’m reading, but I wish I had a commonplace book so I can see how one thing led to another.

  2. Tod Birdsall May 15, 2009 at 6:24 pm · Reply

    Very interesting. I had not heard of it referred to as a “commonplace book” before. I like the idea. If I am reading a book that I wish to learn something from, I generally take a lot of notes. Some are quotes. Most are paraphrased in my own words. When I am done reading the book, I collect the pages of notes into a manila folder and file them away under “Book Report – “. As the need or inclination arises, I will pull them out of the file and review them.

    In some cases, where I felt the subject matter would benefit my co-workers, I have transcribed my notes to electronic form in order to share them.

  3. Margaret May 16, 2009 at 4:29 am · Reply

    I started a commonplace book a few years ago after seeing one in a museum. I used it a few times, just as you describe, but… it went back on the shelf. Thanks for the reminder; it’ll be a perfect companion to my current reading: Adler’s How to Read a Book.

  4. Dixie Darr May 16, 2009 at 5:27 am · Reply

    Great idea! I’ve maintained a variety of journals (both paper and electronic) for many years, including quotations, books read, work ideas, diet, and exercise. I recently started incorporating learning activities into something very like the commonplace (a new term to me) book you describe. I’m also considering using Twitter to record these things and share my learning journeys with the world.

  5. Ann Thomas May 17, 2009 at 9:32 pm · Reply

    Fabulous idea! Now I’m thinking of starting one, and hoping HOPING for the discipline to follow up with it! Or else Dixie suggested, I might use Twitter to record them.

    Cheers and thanks for your wonderful idea!

  6. Jamie May 20, 2009 at 10:03 pm · Reply

    I’m glad there’s been so much interest in this idea. If any of you get a commonplace book going and want to share a pic, please drop me a line.

    Thanks for your comments, Arp, Tod, Margaret, Dixie, and Ann.

  7. David June 30, 2009 at 1:41 pm · Reply

    Wouldn’t call a commonplace book (maybe) it’s more like a journal or diary. I keep my thoughs of any moment or particular day. The though I get from reading any book or some excerpts from the book which I found relevant or interesting. Also as a quotation book.

  8. rick September 11, 2009 at 3:25 pm · Reply

    i have a commonplace book which i found. it was used by a pioneer-settler family and had an active life of 80 years (1831 to 1909). it literally chronicles, in mainly original poetry, the history of that settler family over multiple generations as it was passed down a number of times. i had to coin a term to describe these poems to others, ‘a narrative poetry anthology’, which is defined as “a collection of poetry by multiple authors which chronicles the same story, in real time, as the story unfolds or progresses.” this old album is the only example of this use of poetry i’ve been able to find! by the way, it is a love story. it is truly an amazing old book, i only wish my great-greats had made one for my family.
    i did start one for my daughter some years back, based on the settler example, which was fun. i hope her’s lasts 8 decades also!

  9. rick January 24, 2010 at 2:07 pm · Reply

    in case anyone is interested I posted guidelines for creating a commonplace book based on the old one I found (see above) . Remember, it lasted 80 years and chronicles one pioneer-settler family over three generations! See http://www.rkpate.com for guidelines and more! Cheers!

  10. ryan May 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm · Reply

    Help! Anyone have an opinion of paper vs. electronic commonplace books? The electronic route has its obvious benefits but the downfall is that computers are usually limited to a few areas of the house (unless one has an iPad or does not mind lugging around a laptop). A paper commonplace book can go anywhere but can’t be as organized as an electronic version. Which to pick?

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