Commonplace Books Part 1: What Are They?

Books

If you read books at all (and I mean even if you read just a little) you should consider keeping a commonplace book. I am writing a series of articles about Commonplace books and this is the first in the series, which starts by explaining what a commonplace book is.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How I Got Started

I got my start with a commonplace book by reading an article over at The Sweet Setup while waiting in a long TSA line at the airport in November of 2017. Back in 2017 I was making a change in my reading habits. Up until that point I spent a lot of time reading news on a variety of websites and I subscribed to way too many RSS feeds. So as you can imagine I spent a lot of time reading online short form articles. I knew that if I started seriously reading more books that I would end up reading a lot of really fascinating information and keeping a commonplace book was a good way for me to retain that information and have it in a format I could access and use at a later date.

What Is a Commonplace Book?

The concept of a commonplace book has been around for about as long as books themselves. Commonplace books specifically took hold during the renaissance, which makes sense with this period of time being where greater portions of society really started to appreciate the value of knowledge and wisdom. A common definition for a commonplace book is quoted below from Wikipedia:

“Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses.“

Given its start during the Renaissance, it should come as no surprise that the practice of keeping a commonplace book is still carried on today by modern colleges and universities as a teaching tool for student to learn how to capture and build upon knowledge they obtain from books. The core item that makes a commonplace book a commonplace book and not something else is that it contains pieces of knowledge collected specifically for the purpose of remembering that knowledge, connecting that knowledge with other pieces of information, and then recalling and using that knowledge in the future. I think that does a pretty good job of broadly defining the content and purpose of a commonplace book, but what about the format?

Commonplace Formats and Examples

Originally, the format was a handwritten physical notebook. I say originally because as new mediums and technologies came into being, the variations on commonplace books expanded significantly. Computers, PDAs, websites, and now smartphones have all opened up a whole new world of possibilities. But let’s first start with the original format. When commonplace books first got their start they were handwritten into a physical book. From there the format and content of each commonplace book varied significantly as each is very unique to each person who keeps one. The common thread between most commonplace books is that the are generally organized (if organized at all) by category and not date and they generally contain not only the original content the author captured from the source material (like a quote from a book or a formula or recipe) but also thoughts about that captured material from the person keeping the commonplace book. For example, if the author adds a quote from a book to his or her commonplace book they might add text talking about why that particular quote was interesting enough to capture in their commonplace book and save for later.

In today’s modern world we have a dizzying number of format options. Bullet journals, digital notebooks, wikis, websites, blogs, vlogs and social websites can all be considered (at least to some extent) a commonplace book. Pinterest is a really good modern example of a commonplace book in that it is essentially a scrapbook collection of things that interest the author collected into a single place, commented on, and added to by the author and then referred back to at a later date. Another way to think about commonplace book variations is to look at examples in literature and pop culture:

  • Several of the characters in the book Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events keep commonplace books
  • Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series of books keeps a commonplace book
  • Thomas Jefferson kept one commonplace book for literary items and another for legal related items
  • In the book and movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s spell book contains a bunch additional notes and improvements handwritten into his book that he uses to his advantage in class. While technically the notes and additions to Harry’s spell book were marginalia, marginalia is information that would go directly into a commonplace book (and many people who keep a commonplace book start the process by writing in the margins of books that they read)
  • Anorak’s Almanac in the book and movie Ready Player One is a collection of undated journal entries from James Halliday containing quotes and notes about his favorite pop culture references that the “gunters” use as clues to help them find Halliday’s hidden Easter egg in the Oasis.
An example of what a page from Anorak’s Almanac in Ready Player One would look like. Everybody knows that James Halliday’s favorite music video was “Take on Me” by a-ha right? (art by Nora Owens)

In part 2 of this series of articles I will go into more details about why you might want to keep a commonplace book yourself and how to do so. Click here to read “Commonplace Books Part 2: Why Keep One and How?”

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3 thoughts on “Commonplace Books Part 1: What Are They?

  1. Forgive my nitpick, but wasn’t Harry’s potions textbook with additional notes used in Half Blood Prince?

    Great article and makes me want to add more commonplace features to my BuJo!

    1. Nice catch, thanks! For some reason I was thinking about the diary in the Chamber of Secrets and mixed that up in my head with the spell book in the Half-Blood Prince.

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