Commonplace Books Part 2: Why Keep One and How?

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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 second article in the series, which talks about why someone would want to keep a commonplace book.

If you are just getting into this series with this article I suggest you start at the beginning of the series and work your way through:

Reasons to Keep a Commonplace Book

You might think that with the digitization of so many things, the ancient practice of keeping a commonplace book would have died out. It hasn’t died out, maybe evolved slightly, but it is still going strong. But why is that? Most of us can simply pull a powerful phone (let’s call it what it is… a computer) from our pockets and almost instantly be connected to any piece of data we could possibly want. So why go through the manual effort of collecting information when information is so readily available? The reason is simple: information by itself is just noise. Without context and thought, information has very little value. That truth rings true today just as much as it did when books were a novel concept and commonplace books were getting their start.

So why keep a commonplace book? Each and every one of us has a different set of interests and perspectives, so a passage, quote, or fact that holds particular value for one of us might not hold any meaning whatsoever for anyone else. Reading is not only relaxing and entertaining but it is also educational and introspective. One of the things that started to bother me about reading is how fast I would forget information or even the fact that I had read a book all together. I would read a passage and in that moment that piece of information would make me think about something else or make me consider some other piece of information in a different way. Keeping a commonplace book really enhances the educational and introspective qualities of reading (and if done right keeping a commonplace book won’t take away from the relaxing and entertaining qualities).

All of this sounds pretty good, right, but what does that mean for YOU? Only you can answer that question for yourself. The best I can hope to do with this series of articles is give you some general information about commonplace books, explain how I went about keeping one myself, and why I chose the methods and tools that I did, and then let you decide the why and how behind keeping a commonplace book based on your own personal interests and needs.

My Personal Reasons for Keeping a Commonplace Book

As I mentioned previously, I was a little bit disappointed in my ability to forget information that I had read and that had been so important to me at the time of reading it, but months later I could easily forget about reading the book at all much less remember a passage or quote in particular. But that is how all of our brains work. If our brains just simply retained every piece of information we were ever presented with, it would present us with an entirely new challenge of how to access and use all that information. It was the “use” part that I really wanted to capitalize on, so I chose a method and system that seemed to work best for me.

A General Process for Keeping a Commonplace Book

Below is the general process I follow when keeping a commonplace book and from what I can tell this is pretty much how everybody does it:

  1. Read (as much as possible)
  2. Takes notes as you read (and not just the written text but your own thoughts as well)
  3. Transfer these notes into a single location
  4. Refer back to your notes on a regular basis

Personal Examples

As you can imagine, as a core writer here at GeekDad, I do quite a bit of reading and writing. So for me, the system I chose really needed to work well for how I process information and it needed to be efficient. That might not be the case for you. For some, the extra effort of keeping a physical notebook and physically handwriting into that notebook holds far more value than any efficiency a digital solution may bring. Do what works best and feels right for you.

As I got started keeping a commonplace book I was able to immediately put it to good use. One of my first uses was in the article I wrote titled “My Favorite Quotes from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.“ I was sitting on a long business flight and decided to re-watch Rogue One. As I re-watched the movie I was struck by just how many insightful quotes there were in the movie. So I started taking notes. At the time I wasn’t completely up and running with my commonplace book solution so I just took handwritten notes in the small notebook that is built into my wallet (I have an entire article later in the series dedicated just to tools that goes into more details).

Mister Rogers has a place on the book shelf in the corner of my room where I have a very comfy chair and do most of my reading (Photo by Skip Owens)

But that article was just the beginning. I went on the utilize my new commonplace book practice on many more articles like:

These are all examples of how keeping a commonplace book has helped my writing at GeekDad, but what about my other personal interests? Luckily, I get to choose what I write about and review here on GeekDad, so most of the time review articles line up perfectly with my personal interests. If I weren’t reviewing the item for GeekDad, I would probably be using, consuming, or reading it anyway. But in addition to being a huge tech geek I am also a huge fan of history. So I read quite a bit of biographies, autobiographies, and books about historical events in general, and that type of reading really lends itself well to the practice of keeping a commonplace book. History has a nasty way of repeating itself, so often you come across a quote or a passage from someone or about something from a hundred years ago or more and find that it has particular relevance to us today. When you read something in a book, a passage may make an impact on you but it could have even more of an impact at a later time, so why not write it down so you can reference it later? A quote or piece of information could also spark a memory of another item you recorded in your commonplace book and it might just start you down a path you never would have encountered had you not had a way to put those two pieces of information together. That is why step 4 above, refer back to your notes on a regular basis, is such an important aspect of keeping a commonplace book. In a later article in the series I will talk about how I used automation to refer back to my commonplace book notes.

The next article in the series will examine the different options you have (systems) in keeping a commonplace book. When commonplace books started, your only option was using a traditional paper-based book (and that is still a great option) but its not the only option we have today.

Click here to read the next article in the series: “Commonplace Books Part 3: Choosing a System”

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