The Commonplace Book

I’ve always been the type of person who underlines things in books or collects quotes in abused spiral notebooks. As an early teen I used to read books of quotations and circle the ones that struck a chord with me. I always assumed I was just weird or that over a decade of Catholic school had made me incapable of reading without intellectualizing everything. What I didn’t know was that I incidentally & very nearly was participating in a rich tradition known as the commonplace book. Wikipedia defines the commonplace book as:

a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests. 

Throughout history (at least since Guttenberg) the commonplace books of people like E.M. Forster, John Locke, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, Thomas Jefferson, H.P. Lovecraft & Francis Bacon have been published (usually after their deaths). It’s truly fascinating, as most of these were not written to be read by anyone other than the author; it’s a peak into the thoughts and appreciations of some of the greatest minds. But commonplace books were not just kept by geniuses they were, well…commonplace. A commonplace book was a place to keep track of the things you loved, hated and anything useful or stimulating, which was quite necessary considering that books and information were not as readily accessible as they are today. When reading a book, or stumbling across information it was quite possible that these folks would never see it again, but by writing down the important parts and stimulating ideas they at least had access to these things in the future. It may seem an archaic practice now but I would argue that it is more valuable, perhaps, to track these these things today than it was in the past.

We are so inundated with ads, information, updates, songs and emails that it’s hard to hold on to the valuable information before it is cushioned an buried by the mundane. A great example of mental overload: several years ago, when Netflix first began to offer streaming movies, I had made a habit of watching three sometimes four movies a day. I was amazed by how much was available to me and I just began consuming it at an ungodly rate. Then, maybe about a month into this cinematic gluttony, I was out with friends  and the subject of movies came up. I announced my love for streaming and confessed that I had been gorging myself, to which came the inevitable question of: “What have you been watching?” And it was at that moment that my brain tool a slow, steamy dump; I found myself unable to recall a single film from the past day, week or month. I had piled so much upon my brain that it broke down like an old car or the proverbial camel hauling straw.

Do you ever look back at previous generations and wonder why they seem to be infinitely more educated than we are? Personally, I look at the language & allusions in Allen Ginsberg’s early poetry and wonder how he had acquired so much knowledge at the age of 29 (and that’s it only one generation behind me. Look back further to Thomas Jefferson or Shakespeare.) It seems we’re are de-evolving; but we aren’t. We are simply adapting to the conditions of mass media and the digital era. We have simply traded our depth for breath. What I mean is, while we may read the same Blake & Whitman verses as Ginsberg, we will likely not read them as many times as he did. If at all, we will read them once and then move on to another book, or afternoon MILF porn, or oft mentioned cat videos, or three episodes of a sitcom that only lasted one season. While we will likely experience more in a month then some of the great men experienced in a decade, we will not have the comprehension they did; we will not achieve the same intimacy; we will not appreciate the complexities and connections which only arise from reading slowly & from re-reading over years.

So, this is why I’ve begun to keep a commonplace book. It forces me to track what I’ve read or watched or listened to and it encourages me to articulate my thoughts. Simply having the page there drives me to say more. Sometimes I jot down notes about what the writer or director or podcast guest is doing or saying that impresses me. Sometimes I write down snarky comments. Sometimes I doodle or print out photos of Rooney Mara’s butt from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and paste them in the pages. Sometimes I talk shit about people I know and then spend the next three days regretting and analysing my pettiness. It gives me a record of my mind which I plan to revisit and react with later. These commonplace books (I use a Leuchtturm1917) are things that I plan to pull off of the shelf a year after they are written and re-read them. I think there is something valuable in reacting with your thoughts from the past. It has a intellectual effect in that you remember what you may have forgotten; what my have become buried under the marshmallows of Facebook posts and Instagram selfies and money shots. But reading commonplace books also has a psychological effect wherein you can see how you have changed; what you have learned. In becoming a better person, they serve as watermarks to rise above.

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By C.A. Hall

Writer / Podcaster I'm a well-written sentence marred by a curse word. In another life I might have been a criminal profiler, a jazz drummer, an architect, an acrobat, an actor, or a children’s book illustrator.