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Commonplace Books -- Old Wine in New Bottles

"...[W]e judge it is of great service in studies. . . to bestow diligence and labor in setting down common-places; as it affords matter to invention, and collects and strengthens the judgment." -- Francis Bacon, "Advancement of Learning," Book Five, Ch. 5

In ancient Greece and Rome, students of rhetoric were encouraged to write down arguments, categorized into "topics" or "common places" for study. Wealthy Greeks and Romans also kept private notes containing what they saw, heard, read, or thought in books called "hypomnema" or "commentarii;" some even having slaves that followed them around, wax tablet and stylus in hand, for just that purpose. Like so many other things ancient, the commonplace book reappeared in the early Renaissance. The rediscovery of rhetoric, coupled with the relative scarcity of textbooks, forced students to write extracts and abstracts of texts into their own notebooks, to be used both for later reference and as models to copy. Erasmus, in his book "On Abundance of Words and Ideas," encourages students to write down quotes, stories, and anecdotes in order to gain "abundance" ("copia") in vocabulary, grammar, and ideas.

During the Enlightenment, educated men kept commonplace books filled with quotes, commentaries on their reading, miscellaneous thoughts and observations, and even recipes. Sir Francis Bacon kept a commonplace book, as did John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. The practice persisted into the early twentieth century before almost completely dying out.

Some say that blogs are the modern, digital equivalent of commonplace books. I don't agree. Blogs are public ruminations; some half-digested, others more well thought out, but all of them intended to be read by others. Blogs are electronic essays. A commonplace book is a private thing; a space where a man can copy out a quotation that strikes him, meditate upon it, worry it like a dog with a bone, then add his own thoughts and reflections upon it. It is a diary of the mind; and like a diary, not intended for public consumption.

Why keep a commonplace book at all? I can think of three reasons. The first is the original reason for keeping one--an abundance of words and ideas. A writer needs to have a ready stock of quotes, thoughts, and ideas on hand; just as a cabinet maker needs to have a supply of wood. The quote at the top of this article, in fact, was put in my commonplace book several months ago, to be taken out and used just today. In addition, writers always seem to have ideas while busy with something else. "...[S]ometimes the most admirable thoughts break in upon us which cannot be inserted in what we are writing," Quintillian says, "but which, on the other hand, it is unsafe to put by.... They are, therefore, best kept in store."

A commonplace book is also an aid to self-education and memory. Keeping one forces you to become an active reader, to read with one eye towards the main points of an argument, the beautiful quote, the insight that gives you pause. You become aware of just more than the words on the page; you become aware of the author's arguments, his writing style, and what you think about what the author is saying. It creates a give-and-take between writer and reader. Furthermore, the act of writing down quotations and arguments fixes them more firmly in the memory, making it more likely that you'll remember them at appropriate times. Periodically re-reading your commonplace book will further strengthen your recall even more.

Finally, reading your own commonplace book can be a tool of self-knowledge. Seeing which categories have the most quotations and comments gives you insight into your personal interests, what you hold important and dear, and how your tastes have changed over time.

There are two major methods of keeping a commonplace book. The first is Erasmus' method, which he describes in his book "On Abundance of Words and Ideas." Erasmus was concerned with helping students develop abundance in their persuasive writing, and focused on "exempla" that could be used to support or give proof in an argument. He suggested that a student keep a notebook with the exempla (quotes, fables, proverbs, etc.) that they came across in their reading. The notebook should be arranged into categories based on the principles of "affinity and opposition" -- for example, piety and impiety. Each category was then subdivided (piety to God, to country, to parents, and so on) to prevent confusion, and the same done for the opposite category. Categories could be created at will, or taken from classical authorities such as Cicero or Aristotle. They could also be simply listed alphabetically. When a student read something noteworthy, he wrote it down under the appropriate heading. This allowed a student to use "the riches of your reading." Exempla that could be used under multiple headings would be written out as many times as necessary, or at least a note left on where it could be found (i.e. a citation).

The advantage of Erasmus' system is that it puts all related topics in one place, so that one exempla suggests another. This is especially useful in rhetoric, where multiple examples help drive home a point. The disadvantage (which Erasmus doesn't mention) is that once the commonplace book reaches a certain size, it becomes unwieldy to use without an index of some kind.

In the seventeenth century, John Locke, the English philosopher, published his "new method" for keeping a commonplace book. In keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment, the system is (relatively) simple and utilitarian. Locke brags about being able to keep a commonplace book of any size with only two index pages. (However, he both combines letters [ex. I/J] and keeps his headings in Latin in order to reduce the size of his index. Modern English requires an additional page.) First create an index by taking a ruler and marking out spaces for each letter of the alphabet in a blank book; then subdivide each letter into five smaller spaces--one for each vowel. (ex. Ba, Be, Bi, Bo, Bu.) Commonplace headings are organized by first letter, then first vowel. ("Breath" would go under "Be.") On the first available left-hand (that is, even) page, write the heading in the left margin, letting it hang out further than the rest of the entry. All topics that begin with the same letter/vowel combination go on that left-hand/right-hand pair of pages (ex. all "Be" words go on pages 10 and 11). Write the left-hand page number in the index under the appropriate heading. If an entry goes past a right-hand page, find the next free left-hand page and continue writing. If the very next right-hand page is free, do nothing. But if the next free left-hand page is further back into the book, add that page number to the appropriate index. Furthermore, write the number of the continuation page at the bottom of the old (full) page and the number of the continued from page at the top of the new (empty) one. (This is the same system that magazines use today if they have to split up a story--"continued on" and "continued from.") All quotes should have their sources written down for later use.

The system actually sounds more complex than it is. To see it in action, do a quick online search for Locke's "A New Method of A Common-Place Book". By the time Locke was creating his commonplace books, they had become more of a repository of facts, information, and quotes than a storehouse of rhetorical examples. His alphabetic index system makes it much easier to store and retrieve information. However, it also means that related ideas might be written down in entirely different locations, making it harder to draw connections between them.

My personal commonplace book is kept electronically, using a system that's more Erasmusian than Lockean. It's a single, giant text file. At the very top of the document, I have an alphabetic list of topics. In the body, I repeat each Topic name, then write everything--quotes, comments, personal observations--under that topic heading. This allows me to search by topic and keeps related items together. Being a single computer file, I'm also able to do a keyword search if, for instance, I can only remember a word or two from a quote. I cite all my quotes, and preface everything that I write (comments, stand alone quotes) with an asterisk to mark it as mine, rather than some other author's.

The advantage to an electronic commonplace book is that it takes up no physical space and can be searched easily. Text files are hard to corrupt and are readable by almost all computers. By adding a hotkey-linked shortcut on my desktop, I can open my commonplace book with just a few keystrokes. Of course, it requires a computer to be used; and if I were forced to print it out, it would become a hundred-page-plus monster. But even then, the index would still allow me to make use of it.

Creating and maintaining a commonplace book is an investment of both time and effort. However, all that work will be more than repaid in "a copia of words and ideas." As a writer, I can't think of anything more worthwhile and useful.

© 2010 Andrew Gudgel
andrew (at sign)
This page last updated on 20180430.