Commonplace Book: What It Is and Why You Should Keep One

Commonplace Book: What It Is and Why You Should Keep One

Lately, I have started keeping a commonplace book again. When I was very young, I kept one for years (and would that I could figure out whatever happened to it!), but fell off the practice when I started high school back in 2005 and haven’t really done anything like it since then. Now, don’t think a commonplace book is like a journal or a diary, because it’s not. A commonplace book is not the place for introspection and personal reflection – rather, it is “a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits.

What this basically means is it’s a catchall for anything you might see or hear in the great wide world that catches you eye and makes you think, “Hm. That was good.”

You write it down in your commonplace book for future reference.

My commonplace book is currently being housed in my No. 5 Autumn Rose traveler’s notebook from The Foxy Fix, and is a collection of many things, to include:

  • quotes
  • poetry
  • lists of books I’ve read this year
  • books I want to read in the future
  • a reference guide for Sarah J. Maas’ bibliography
  • definitions of words I did not recognize
  • complete passages from books I’m reading
  • brief research on topics I was unfamiliar with
  • a list of poets I’d like to read

All of this is kept in no particular order. I write on the next blank page, in whatever style and ink suits me. Right now, there’s a ton of passages from Libba Bray’s Lair of Dreams (part 2 of a series, which you can buy here and here if you so desire – it’s YA fantasy set in 20th century NYC and I highly recommend it, Libba Bray is a wordsmith of the highest caliber!) because I swear to all the high heavens that woman is a silver tongue if I’ve ever seen one.

As mentioned, it also is a place to collect vocabulary words (I know – you thought vocabulary words ended in middle school. Let me be the first to tell you it is never too late to expand your vocabulary!). For example, here are some of the words I’ve recorded:

  • pneumatic
  • copacetic
  • sycophant
  • crepuscular
  • nihilism
  • bromide
  • incandescent

No, I won’t tell you the definitions. Look them up and add them to your own commonplace book!

But why should you keep one?

Well, to start off with, nearly all of history’s greatest figures (and many of your normal, regular citizens) have kept a version of a commonplace book. A la Wikipedia, “[Commonplace] books were essentially scrapbooks 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 scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.”

It’s a place for you to refer back to in the future, should you find yourself in need of inspiration. It makes reading and writing inseparable activities – while you’re reading, you’re taking notes. You’re writing in the margins. You’re underlining passages and dog-earing pages and making exclamatory statements next to particularly surprising passages. Then, when you’re done, you copy it over into your commonplace book. In this way, reading is no longer a passive activity – it is active, intellectual, and engaging. You are given the opportunity to reflect upon what you’re reading, rather than to just absorb it and move on.

Granted, not all of us are readers, and that’s fine. For those of you who aren’t, a commonplace book is simply a handy depository for things you find on the line that might be inspiring or thought-provoking. How many of us screenshot things we see on Facebook or instagram because we thought it was particularly indicative and representative of something going on in our lives, only to have that screenshot lost forever in the depths of our camera rolls, never to be seen or thought about again?

With a commonplace book, you copy that screenshot over, which in and of itself will make you reflect upon what about the passage or the quote or the meme that inspired you in the first place. Then, it’s readily available for future use and reference, whatever that use or reference may be. You will no longer have to scroll through endless selfies and dog photos to find the screenshot you’re looking for.

If you’re into this kind of thing, a commonplace book can also serve as a record for the future. In this digital, electronic age, few things are written down by hand anymore. But the longevity of our digital files is currently unknown – will this blog post survive the passage of time? Will anything we do online survive?

Sure, provided future generations continue to have access to electricity, computers, and high-speed internet.

We know, however, that the written word, pen-and-paper, notebooks, are all able to survive through time, albeit in various states of disrepair upon their discovery. In fact, we have used commonplace books from both the greats and the normals to get an idea of what people were thinking about and reading and doing and writing and feeing for hundreds of years. They have provided us with so much insight into the past and have proven to be an invaluable resource for historians all over the world.

It may be a little ambitious to think that my personal recordings of things that I like might be found one day in the future and serve as the logbook of a generation (ha!), but I still like to record these things as much for posterity’s sake as for my own.

And that’s totally fine!

If nothing else, it leaves a physical record for future generations of my own family to look back and see what I, personally, was doing and thinking and feeling. I have a series of journals my mom kept when I was a baby, nothing important was said in them, just documentations of my day and my first words and my first steps and the foods I liked and things of that nature, but those notebooks are precious to me because they were written by a member of my family and because they provide insight into a time of life that I don’t remember (being that I was an infant at the time, obviously).

It’s a little awe-inspiring to think that someone from my future may look upon my notebooks in the same fashion.

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4 Replies to “Commonplace Book: What It Is and Why You Should Keep One”

  1. Thanks. Great article. I’ve used commonplace books before and have a desk drawer to prove it. But drifted away this year. Your post inspired me to start it back up. I’m going to include vocabulary words which I never did in the past.

    1. So glad to hear, Steve! I love that you have a drawer full – what a neat collection to have! I can’t wait till I’ve achieved that as well!

  2. This is a neat idea, I’ve never thought about doing something like that. I will be doing it from here on out. I am one that does save screen shots, and jots things here and there but never thought of doing it like this. And never thought about vocabulary and I do come across words regularly when reading especially in my historical romance genre I love to read…lol!
    Thanks for the inspiration!
    2018 GOALS!

    1. I am so glad you feel inspired!!! Definitely let me know what you think after trying it for a while 🙂

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