I don’t know about you, but my phone is filled with notes—the link to a recipe I tried and want to remember, words I intend to look up, a line from a movie that struck me, the title of an article I loved reading and want to access again. All these little bits of information—how, in the rapid pace of modern life, do we organize it all? Enter the commonplace book.
So, what the heck is a commonplace book? Commonplace books came into vogue with the Renaissance, as literacy flourished and people had easier access to books. The point of a commonplace book was to gather notes about a variety of topics; it was originally meant to spur the writer’s memory. Besides quotes from books, commonplace books came to be places for recipes, poems, and other pieces of information people wanted to remember.
The history of commonplace books
Historian and philosopher of science Richard Yeo explains that the Renaissance changed how people accessed knowledge, creating “a profound shift in western culture from a celebration of memory as the best anchor for knowledge to a sanctioning of forgetting and subsequent retrieval from external sources—such as books, notes, archives and databases.” An article about commonplace books on Farnam Street Blog explains that the people of the Renaissance “perhaps experienced the first wave of information overload.” It makes sense that with the increase in access to information that memory alone would struggle to keep up. The commonplace book was a way of making sure nothing fell through the memory’s cracks.
Yeo makes clear that commonplace books differed from other writings of the day, like journals: “Humanist commonplace books were arranged by categories, under ‘Heads’, usually with no reference to the date of the entry; they rarely included personal reﬂections. . . . This mode of organization was intimately connected with the role of these notebooks as memory aids.” A few examples of Renaissance “heads” (what we call “headings” today) are “Beauty,” “Philosophy,” and “Virtue.” With these headings, keepers of commonplace books could organize the information they found on these topics and more quickly navigate to information on a particular topic.
A new way of remembering
In some ways, commonplace books are familiar, even if we’ve never heard the word before. Reference books and databases come to mind as a couple modern ways of organizing information. Or, most of us are probably familiar with Pinterest boards, where we can organize pins according to topic. As with the organization of Renaissance commonplace books, specific titles can help Pinterest users organize information so that wanted information is readily accessible.
Aside from Pinterest, another way of organizing information in a virtual space is the blog. Professor of English and rhetoric Richard Nordquist observes in a 2019 article for ThoughtCo., that “for some writers, blogs serve as contemporary versions of commonplace books.” And this makes sense whether a blogger is focusing on a particular topic (e.g., gluten-free recipes) or detailing various interests. Blogs offer shared pages (often tagged with particular topics) that the author—and other people—can visit and revisit. This is not too different from published commonplace books of the past, where people like John Locke, John Milton, and Anna Jameson opened their commonplace books to the public. Such a practice allowed readers access to previously unknown sources of inspiration and edification.
Historically, some commonplacers used their books to help them accumulate sources for a book they were writing, a speech they were preparing to give, or a debate they were planning to engage in. Now that billions of sources are available to us at the press of a button, it may seem like the commonplace book is outmoded. We don’t necessarily need to collect and categorize information in the same way.
But the practice of commonplacing has something to offer that current practices of creating a Pinterest board or blog post do not: it allows us not only to find and arrange information, but also encourages us to remember what has inspired us. I think this has to do with the tangible nature of assembling a commonplace book. While I may pin something that I hope to revisit sometime when I have the time, while my blog posts are filed away under various tabs, commonplacing offers an immediacy and physicality that virtual options do not.
Especially during the dreariness that can mark the winter months, being able to create a space to gather my inspiration into one place is joy-inducing. Farnam Street Blog refers to commonplace books as “the original remix culture and ultimate foundation of creativity.” Commonplacers of the past sampled a variety of works and compiled their knowledge in ways that best suited them. In the process, they inspired others to do the same.
Making my own commonplace book
Enter the desire to start my own commonplace book, not only with my assorted phone notes, but with a pile of sticky notes, poems I printed out because I liked them, and other bits of written memorabilia I’d accumulated over the years.
Unlike my commonplacing predecessors, I didn’t want to handwrite all my entries; I also wanted the contents of my commonplace book to be pleasing to the eye. So, I grabbed an old scrapbook (the kind that contains a variety of papers and patterns) and began pasting some of the materials I had accumulated over the years. I’m still working through the organization, but I’m looking at a commonplace book roughly centered around literary pursuits. I have a section for poetry, a section for quotes from various works of literature that have inspired me, and a vocabulary section for documenting and defining old words that I like. I may also include a section for art—postcards of famous paintings and pictures that have inspired me.
Though the technological advances of the twenty-first century may make the commonplace book seem obsolete, for me it has met a creative need I didn’t realize I had. In creating my own commonplace book, I’ve rediscovered the joy of tangible creation, of physically assembling a treasure trove of meaningful words and images for myself. It feels similar to organizing a room so that the furniture and objects convey a sense of beauty and personal style. It’s also a place to which I can return to more easily find the words and images that bring me joy, without the need for scrolling through a computer or phone. And much like the books that become more my own the more I read and mark them, the commonplace book invites a continual return to a veritable bouquet of inspiration.
In my commonplace book, whether I’m handwriting a quote or printing it from the computer, I make a conscious, deliberate choice to add it to my book. I choose the page, I utilize instruments (if not a pen, then scissors, paste, or tape), and I physically peruse the book when I want to revisit my entry. I also love the commonplace book’s invitation to focus not on what our social media audience might want to see, but what has genuinely moved us. (I mean, back in the day, if you were handwriting a long passage, you wouldn’t bother if the passage didn’t actually mean very much to you.) The fact that commonplacing invites me away from screens is also a plus; the result is I’m more aware of the fact that I’m involved in an act of creation.
I invite you to join me in this multi-centuried tradition, as a means of meaningfully collecting—and perhaps better remembering—those gems of knowledge that have moved you. And who knows, the process of creating your own commonplace book may inspire other forms of creativity.