Pages from a commonplace book

“[W]e read how Milton composed, Montaigne, Goethe: by what happy strokes of thought, flashes of wit, apt figures, fit quotations snatched from vast fields of learning, their rich pages were wrought forth! This were to give the keys of great authorship!”         ~Amos Bronson Alcott, 1877

Commonplacing, or keeping a book of reading notes, began in Renaissance times. The practice grew up with the very existence of books themselves. It was taught in universities in England and Europe in the 17th Century. Authors from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Mark Twain to H. P. Lovecraft kept commonplace books. The practice has been, and remains, an excellent way to compile information and to build knowledge.

A commonplace book is not a journal. It is not overtly introspective and generally not chronological. Gathering a hodgepodge collection of random quotes, thoughts, and overheard quips that resonate or sparks ideas, is more akin to scrapbooking.

The value of keeping a commonplace book goes beyond simply recording useful quotes and references to mine later. Copying out a quote and noting some thoughts about it is a way to read actively. This kind of deep reading is necessary if you want to improve as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, popcorn reading for simple pleasure is also necessary and lovely, but if you want to grow as a writer you must seek out different and, yes, difficult texts and wrestle with them. (This is why I also love reading and committing marginalia.*)

A commonplace book is different than a journal but that doesn’t mean it can’t be contained in one, which is what I do.

Over the years I’ve experimented with many ways of journaling. Really, my journals are a constant, evolving experiment. In the past, I’ve carried around a thick book that took a year or more to fill. These are heavy to lug around, and I do like to always have my journal with me, so this year I’m using a series of smaller books.

My journals are always a mishmash of everything: New ideas, outlines, notes, meta thoughts, early noodling drafts, personal rants, and lists of things I’m grateful for. I keep commonplace notes in with all the rest. I have quotes from books about writing and popular science. I have a bottle of library paste handy so that I can glue in articles I clip from magazines. I’ll also write down thoughts about the fiction I’m reading, like why a particular story rung me like a bell, or how a writer approached character, or musings on why some some element of a story didn’t work for me.

I read through my journal every couple weeks to highlight sections and add marginalia. I also build an index in the back of each journal as I go. With both commonplacing** and journaling, I may or may not come back to a particular passage. For me, the act of writing out my (or some other writers’) thoughts helps me progress to a new level of understanding of not only writing but – as Douglas Adams would say – Life the Universe and Everything.

* Marginalia, a topic definitely worthy of it’s own blog post. Stay tuned…
** Today, commonplacing is showing up across a panoply of different technologies. I also use Evernote and Pinterest; some people use Facebook and blogs as commonplace books. This is a rich topic, but since this post is already past due, one that I’ll be blogging about on another day.

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