What Is a Commonplace Book, Anyway?

A commonplace book is a system for:

  • Making notes to capture facts, quotes, anecdotes, and ideas from any source at any time.
  • Revising notes so that they’re organized and searchable.
  • Using notes for writing, speaking, and other creative activities.
  • Have loads of fun playing with ideas every day.

commonplace

But that’s just my take. Consider the following definitions from some smart people.

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A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.—Ryan Holiday

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This [a commonplace book] is a single place where you keep ideas, quotes, inspiring thoughts, and other potentially useful information for regular review and potential re-purposing. My running commonplace book is a small, unlined insert I the back of my Midori Traveler’s Notebook, but I also transfer ideas and insights regularly into Evernote so that I have a digital archive for potential use in my writing, consulting, or podcasts.—Todd Henry

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Reading and writing are intrinsically linked on the lifelong quest to discover new possibilities, validate ideas, soak up knowledge from others, and inspire new opportunities for our work.

One of the best ways to ensure that these two pursuits remain forever linked is to capture our thoughts in a place where they can constantly be read, reviewed, analyzed, and studied.

Behold, the power of the commonplace book, a system with deep historical roots.—Taylor Pipes

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A commonplace book is not what you might expect from the name. Rather than something ordinary, a commonplace book is a journal or notebook in which a student, reader, or writer compiles quotations, poems, letters, and information, along with the compiler’s notes and reactions. Students from the 1600s through the 1800s were required to keep commonplace books as learning tools.—Library of Congress

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Before the affordability of personal libraries, and before people were able to access the world’s knowledge through the Internet, readers and writers had to find reasonable ways to consolidate and store information that could be useful to them. There were no social media to help them aggregate and share stories, quotes, recipes, or images. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do exactly that. They created personal anthologies called commonplace books.—Kelsey McKinney

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A commonplace book is at once a book form and a method of reading. Commonplacing was a system of using books in which readers digested the books they read by extracting, ordering and recording particular phrases or passages in notebooks of their own. This process encouraged readers to atomize books by isolating units that might later be useful in one or another discursive context. While the commonplace book allowed readers to personalize their reading by making it useful, this process of textual engagement was also highly prescribed, “common” in the sense that it filtered one’s reading through social norms that determined what was textually significant and what not.—Commonplace Thinking

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…for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy—just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them. I call it the spark file.—Steven Berlin Johnson

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