Commonplace Books: Notebooks for Magpies
December 2, 2015 5:06 PM   Subscribe

Before Pinterest and Evernote and Tumblr, there was the humble commonplace book, a space for gathering and reflecting on ideas, quotations, observations, lines from poems, and other information. "How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book" is a brief introduction to a venerable tradition of idea curation.

How old of a tradition is transcribing favorite passages? In "Tumblr as a Commonplace Book," Shaj Mathew provides this commentary from Seneca, a "first-century Roman Stoic philosopher, [who] likened the commonplace book to a literary honeycomb":
We should follow…the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in. These bees, as our Virgil says, “pack close the flowing honey, and swell their cells with nectar sweet.” We could so blend these several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came.

John Milton kept one. Thomas Jefferson kept two: one literary, one legal. H.P. Lovecraft kept one. Joan Didion reflected on her version of the practice in her essay "On Keeping a Notebook" (.pdf):
What use was I planning to make of this line by Jimmy Hoffa: “I may have my faults, but being wrong ain’t one of them”? And although I think it interesting to know where the girls who travel with the Syndicate have their hair done when they find themselves on the West Coast, will I ever make suitable use of it? ... What is a recipe for sauerkraut doing in my notebook? What kind of magpie keeps this notebook?
The answer is that all sorts of magpies keep commonplace books, as well as their cousins, journals and notebooks...

* "The Pocket Notebooks of 20 Famous Men" (previously, 2010)

* "The Manly Tradition of the Pocket Notebook"

...and that you can, too:

* "Everyone Should Keep a Commonplace Book: Great Tips from People Who Do"

* Start a commonplace book

* "100 Ways to Use Your Pocket Notebook"

Jessamyn West (the other one, despite the photo): "People who keep journals have life twice."

Commonplace books previously (2005).
posted by MonkeyToes (25 comments total) 123 users marked this as a favorite
I started one when I was about sixteen, and it took me until maybe age 25 to learn that I had not invented the idea and indeed that there was a name for such a thing. Currently mine run to about seven volumes and they are absolutely the first things I would grab and rescue in the event of a house fire.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:21 PM on December 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

I keep them, but I feel like Didion. Why do I have all these things???
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:26 PM on December 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Hey! I just ordered a fresh batch of sweet little Field Notes notebooks (Bonus: "Because it's Wednesday," they tossed in an extra three, gratis). There are probably more frugal pocket notebook options, but the marketing deployed is aces.

When I've taught, I've had the students start keeping them, ostensibly to capture ideas and notable passages from their reading, so they can interact with it and get a headstart on their essay topics and research, but also to help them start reflecting on their lives more broadly and more intentionally via words.

I suppose a personal blog might do a lot of what a commonplace does. Probably not as efficiently. Certainly not as viscerally.
posted by notyou at 6:07 PM on December 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Great post. In one form or another, I've kept a commonplace book for the past twenty years. Although lately, because of the influence of comic creator Lynda Barry, its starting to morph into some kind of visual map of my mental travels.
posted by hoodrich at 6:13 PM on December 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to keep one, from when I was 16 into college. After college, I switched to keeping quote files on my work and home computers, backed up via email. I fell out of the habit a year ago when I switched jobs, and I haven't yet resumed the practice, though I still earmark pages in books that have good quotes, I still star good quotes in chat, and I make notes to myself in Google Tasks re: amusing things my husband says. The downside of physical notebooks is that they're not searchable, alas.
posted by limeonaire at 6:23 PM on December 2, 2015

I posted in celebration of closing out a commonplace book I've kept for years. The last entry: "People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than as threats to be avoided."--Albert Bandura
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:45 PM on December 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Not being searchable is a feature, not a bug. Reading all the different passages you find interesting can create new and interesting connections.
posted by reenum at 6:45 PM on December 2, 2015 [8 favorites]

I've been doing this! A little bit, ish. But instead of writing things down, I type it up and put it in Anki. I trade the writing-it-down feeling for being shown quotes again and again, in different contexts, with different things before and after.
posted by you could feel the sky at 6:46 PM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wish I could do this. I mean, I'm not physically incapable of doing it. Just that I never do it. I haven't been able to get myself in the habit of keeping a notebook and writing stuff down. I have plenty of little notebooks that have the first couple pages filled with something and the rest being empty littered throughout my house and bookshelves. In fact, I just bought a new one the other day to keep in the car. That's the second one I bought for that purpose...not sure where the first one went off to.
posted by snwod at 7:19 PM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure my iPod touch is this. It keeps notes better than my phone, I can search for things, and frankly, it's harder to find things in my paper journals. Don't get me wrong, I've got those too, but computerizing this sort of thing just works better.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:38 PM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's interesting that many people use Pinterest for a similar purpose (as mentioned in the Thought Catalog piece) which is sometimes dismissed as frippery, but then we have that articles extolling "the manly tradition" of the pocket notebook.

Also from the Thought Catalog piece:
Technology is great, don’t get me wrong. But some things should take effort. Personally, I’d much rather adhere to the system that worked for guys like Thomas Jefferson than some cloud-based shortcut.
"Because Thomas Jefferson did it" isn't a good enough reason for me. I'm grateful for the cloud-based shortcut, for favorites on Metafilter and clipping to Pinterest and Evernote and notes emailed to self. I enjoyed making those notes in the library reading room, but I don't see them as having more value than someone's Tumblr or Pinterest or whatever they're using to gather bits and bobs of inspiration digitally.

I used to go to the public library in college and take a little notebook to the reading room and spend a few hours catching up on periodicals, so I have four years of notes I jotted down while reading The Utne Reader, CMYK, and Communication Arts (and Real Simple). I got around to typing it into Evernote awhile back and I've seen those notes more in the past 10 months than I did in the past 10 years, and it felt great to get rid of paper that I've been hauling around for a decade.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 8:25 PM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

My tumblr is called commonplace book (even though it's mostly me crying about superheroes), I have a physical journal that I use as a commonplace book for poems and quotes, and I also have the Scrapbook extension on Firefox so I can save poems and quotes I like whenever I see them online. I love all of these methods, but I have to admit, something about the deliberation of transcribing things into the physical journal renders it especially meaningful.
posted by yasaman at 8:32 PM on December 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not being searchable is a feature, not a bug.

A thousand times this. A commonplace book is a reflection of the mind that compiled it, and cluttered and widely-read minds are often models of instructive digression. If I want to look up the exact wording of that famous line from Flaubert about human speech being like a cracked kettle, then any search engine will find it for me in 0.08 seconds. If I want to look it up in my commonplace book, I will have to ponder roughly when I read Madame Bovary and then dive into the proper volume, being distracted all the way by scraps of Robertson Davies, lines from XTC songs, absurd headlines and a limerick I heard around the same time. Looking back on these books, I find they provide a better snapshot of my mental landscape than more traditional journals I may have kept at the same time (which are usually mortifying to read decades later).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:22 PM on December 2, 2015 [7 favorites]

Thanks everyone, for inspiring me to quit simply indexing and reviewing my reading on goodreads. I used to keep a moleskine commonplace book and it had so much more in it than what a kindle bookmark or a review on the cloud will ever have. I thumb through that volume occasionally, as it covers roughly 5 yrs of my life, and I am still taken unawares when I hit the page I wrote when our dog died, or the line I wrote the day my wife left me.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:02 PM on December 2, 2015 [6 favorites]

I know what you mean. There is a line from Donne on mortality that I wrote in my own book while on a train on the way to my brother's funeral. It captures something about that grim day the way nothing else can.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 10:44 PM on December 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not being searchable is a feature, not a bug.

For 1D data, I save all my notes as text files on Linux providing maximum extensibility and longevity. If you want to ramble about, search on a common string, bam! You'll have more to read than you can handle. If you want a never ending string of words, run a script over the directory. UTF-8, Woot!

That said, I have 20 years of sketchbooks for 2d and simulated 3D information as mixed media collages and sketches. This saves me from falling into the trap of recording text strings in books for tactile reasons. If it's hand drawn, then it's also necessarily a visual expression.
posted by xtian at 3:35 AM on December 3, 2015 [1 favorite]

I thought this was going to be about Welcome To Night Vale's publisher. But I see they even have redirecting straight to the WTNV site now.
posted by Foosnark at 6:02 AM on December 3, 2015

Thanks for this! I'll dive into the links in a minute, but just wanted to say: Holy shit, my commonplace book post is 10 years old!
posted by monju_bosatsu at 6:25 AM on December 3, 2015 [2 favorites]

A commonplace book is a reflection of the mind that compiled it, and cluttered and widely-read minds are often models of instructive digression. ... I find they provide a better snapshot of my mental landscape than more traditional journals

Yes, ricochet biscuit, yes.

When I read Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," I came across the idea of the memory palace (" Italy he learned a memory system and furnished it with pictures. ... One needs startling juxtapositions, images that are more or less peculiar, ridiculous, even indecent. When you have made the images, you place them about the world in locations you choose, each one with its parcel of woods, of figures, which they will yield you on demand."). I now wonder whether writing things down in a particular place, in a particular mood, stores those moments in a way that involves spatial memory/some processes in addition to the usual suspects.

And yes, the reading of these jottings so often provokes powerful feelings.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:25 AM on December 3, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've been doing this off and on for years and never knew it had a name! I've been inspired to drag out my Moleskine and renew the habit!
posted by angelchrys at 9:01 PM on December 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

this is 100% up my alley, or should i say, up my freeway because I am ALL ABOUT notebooks, much more than I am about the using of notebooks. Pens and paper just do it for me, and I'm always trying to figure out ways to get myself to actually use them.

The original link is a few years old. I actually read it about two years ago when I wanted to start writing more. I marked off a few pages in my pocket decomposition book and started transcribing passages I enjoyed from "Letters From a Self Made Man" - I thought it was great fatherly advice about how to run a business, but it turned out it was written by a childless newspaperman.

I've not really written down quotes or passages since then. I'd have to transcribe entire pages, entire field notes books worth, or nothing at all. So I do nothing.

I like the idea of copying down things that are meaningful to me, but my life is filled with meaning. The internet is my Curated Meaning Minifeed - "oh wow, that's quite profound and interesting. Next. Next." Meaningful is no longer sufficient for me - because almost everything that engages me is highly meaningful.

On the flip side, the things that are truly so very meaningful are things like the 55-episode-long podcast Mike Duncan did on the French Revolution. There is no quote, no summary, that will capture what happened. The 1 lb bullet doesn't have much impact, without the 100 lb gun to fire it.

So now i just jot down thoughts about things i like and dislike. I write about depression and fun days. I draw a lot of pictures of myself. I map out book characters, I just try to produce SOMETHING creative, something anything, as often as I can remember.

I even have a list of things I like to read written down in one of my notebooks somewhere. But it's in a notebook somewhere, so I have to guess, that what I would like to return to someday and read are opinions in response to something, adventure notes, slice of lifes, and none of that blathering that uses up so much ink in my notebook today.
posted by rebent at 10:26 AM on December 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I kept a commonplace book when I was 17 and 18, during my first and second year of college. There are also journal entries in it here and there, but mostly it's quotes from my reading, interesting words I learned, the titles of every book I read. I pasted in a few political cartoons and comics, and the set list from a Bruce Springsteen concert. It's a very cool notebook to go through; I like it better than reading old journals.
posted by not that girl at 12:06 PM on December 7, 2015

I've been wildly vacillating between cloud and paper the last few years. I wish I could settle on one or find a way to integrate them better. The paper stuff is just so chronologically-based it's hard to use as a reference. The digital stuff is just a series of gloppy lava flow messes. I've reached for Memex but ended up with a rat's nest. I suppose the only thing to do now is to become rich and famous so some poor schmuck will feel compelled to organize all of this as a thesis project after I die.

One of my best commonplace book-like things followed machinations of the Soviet Politburo over the last decade of its existence...and then my folks chucked it cleaning up my room while I was off cavorting at college. There wasn't anything revolutionary or particularly academically interesting--just local newspaper clippings and musings from a junior/senior high school kid in the Midwest with a weird fascination. I really wish I still had that.

I also miss the heck out of these things called Kid Grid journals. Tablet-sized, spiral-bound notebooks with pages like card stock and a pocket to put things into. Combine these with an XActo knife, a glue stick, and a fountain pen and you had the very best journaling medium. The maker went out of business many years ago. I found a few sitting on a remainder shelf in a junk store and snatched them up. They're also full now so I'm back to regular paper notebooks. And the Internet.
posted by Fezboy! at 3:21 PM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do carry a notebook around with me for jottings of things, but find myself doing it on my phone more and more lately. And then transcribing it later, just to fill the notebook up. I have no idea how to find anything when I need it and also can't read my handwriting most of the time, but, hey, got all these notebooks, like a row of the fuckers filled with tiny print like the serial killer from Se7en.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:49 PM on December 7, 2015

I have Evernote, my handwritten journals, a locked blog, the books where I copy down my favorite poems, and my Kindle highlights. And probably several other places where I stash things I want to save. Oh, yeah, and my index card files. At least I don't hoard published books the way I used to. I just hoard the excerpts.
posted by Peach at 7:27 PM on December 21, 2015

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