I read a piece this weekend by Charley Locke about what he calls a “commonplace book.” (Sometimes simply known as “commonplaces.”) That’s a term new to me. His is a collection of quotes, lines from songs, poetry, and other things that are not his own thoughts. It’s not a diary or journal but he says it is a kind of diary but without the risk of “annoying yourself.” His criteria for inclusion is just that the things struck him as meaningful when he wrote them down.
By that definition, I have been keeping a set of commonplace books for decades. Mine have been more collage than words. I clip things that appeal to me from magazines, newspapers, advertisements, brochures. I add stickers, some photographs, ticket stubs, and sometimes I write some words on the pages. (Some fragments from over the years illustrate this post.)
I thought of these books as scrapbooks because that is what I bought to use for them. I started this in college and I have an entire shelf of them now. If I page back through them, they are records of where I was at that time. The college volume is full of actresses and movie stills, articles, and photos from the college newspaper (the Rutgers Targum is a daily, so there was a lot to clip). I filled the pages, collage-style. Some things are just nice images, patterns, backgrounds. As far as words, there are headlines that sometimes act as titles, a clipped poem, a good paragraph, or line.
Looking through them this weekend to grab a few images, I notice that they have less writing and are more visual as the years pass. Perhaps because my writing goes into other places – like online.
I also have a book that is full of quotes I like. And a travel journal that records some notes from my trips, those we have taken as a family and as a couple.
Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts.
In the article, Locke says he was never a journal person, though he tried and has elementary school diaries and like-new Moleskine notebooks with a few sad entries. His commonplace book is one he writes in, so it’s not like my scrapbooks, though it might serve the same purpose.
It turns out that commonplace books go back to the Renaissance. People would mix fragments of published writing classical and contemporary with their own writing.
Jonathan Swift said: “A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories;’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.”
Some of these books are records of famous folks’ reading. John Milton did one in 1642 after his wife dumped him and he went on a binge of reading about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle copied out criminology theories in one. I like that he gave fictional Sherlock his own book.
E. M. Forster wrote in his commonplace book from 1925 through 1968, stopping 18 months before his death. It has quotations from his reading, musings on his life and times, and random odds and ends (such as the plan of a large garden he kept.)
Wikipedia’s entry says “Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae (often with the compiler’s responses), notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes. Entries are most often organized under subject headings and differ functionally from journals or diaries, which are chronological and introspective. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.”
Why are they “commonplace”? It’s not the commonplace that means “ordinary” today. It is a translation of the Latin term locus communis which means “a general or common topic,” such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. I think of my commonplace books as where I collect things in one common place. I’ve used notecards too, but there is something satisfying about having it all in one place where it is easy to find, re-read, and perhaps use somewhere else.