On the Practice of Commonplacing

The practice of commonplacing is the act of a reader recording meaningful phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of text or “commonplaces,” a practice that has been observed for centuries by great minds such as Caesar, Milton, Locke, Jefferson, and Emerson as well as literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes. Traditionally, these commonplaces were generally gathered from books, but a commonplace in a modern context can be anything from a snippet of song lyrics to a quote from a favorite TV show.

This diversity of source is mirrored by the great diversity of medium and method used by readers in recording these formative discoveries. The notebooks range from scribbled collections of quotes thrown onto the page (see this example from Coleridge’s commonplace book) to grungy little pads suited for pocket transport to meticulously indexed and ordered digital journals created in software like Evernote and Scrivener. Some writers prefer the feel of the trusty #2 pencil, others the lightning-fast processing power of a Macbook Pro, and still others the nostalgia of a Royal typewriter.

No two commonplace notebooks are ever really the same because no two readers are ever struck by words and works in exactly the same ways. Where one reader might enjoy compiling a whole host of Chestertonian one-liners and clever asides, another may store up great hoards of Rousseau’s philosophical musings to which he will return at a later date. An elderly man might be struck by Herodotus’ sagacious observations about the ways of the world in his Histories while a teenager may only record this simple quote, snickering at the impropriety of the Greeks and Persians: “It is the way of sensible people to have no concern for abducted women” (1.4.2).

The commonplace notebook is a treasure-trove of a reader’s past experiences, a window into the state of his mind in days gone by. If he returns to its weathered pages after some time has passed, he will find he is able to laugh the laugh of nostalgia when reading snippets of a favorite childhood story, to discover a deep and varied well from which to draw material for papers and presentations, and even to glimpse something about himself, about what he once found humourous or striking or sad, about the themes that ran through the works he read after his grandmother died or his new job began or the next stage of life approached. The commonplace notebook is, in effect, a piece of incarnated soul laid bare, readable by all and yet seldom seen except by the reader himself; the practice of commonplacing is the means by which the man embeds himself in its pages.

Examples from the Author

Commonplaces (2013)
This is the first page of my earliest attempt at a “Book Quotes” book from 2013…
Commonplace Key (2013)
…and this is my book title “key” that I used for ease-of-reference
Pg. 102 of Junior Year Commonplace Notebook
Here is the 102nd page from the Writer’s first “official” commonplace book that I was required to maintain during the first semester of my junior year of college in 2014.
Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 9.35.01 PM
After cramming toward the end of the semester to finish hand-writing 112 pages of commonplaces, I migrated over to digital commonplacing in 2015 for the rest of my junior and senior years.
Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 9.36.55 PM
After graduation, I acquired Scrivener, the phenomenal writing software, and found it was quite amenable to maintaining a digital commonplace.

Further Reading

(Image courtesy of Jan Kahanek and Unsplash.com)


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