Organizing a Commonplace Book

A reader of the blog I wrote on Monday commented that Locke’s indexing method isn’t as complicated as I made it appear. This reader is a librarian so perhaps that should make sense, although she does go on to say, “The complicated part is consistent taxonomy so that every time a certain topic occurs you call it the same thing. You'd think this would be easy but it's not.” Her comment led me to look more closely at just how Locke did it.

The matter looms large for those who are concerned with how to organize their commonplace book. I imagine most readers simply list in turn the passages from the books and other materials they read. That’s how I do it in Word .doc with the author and title of the piece followed by the passages I want to record.

At the end of the year I add the collection to those of the previous years. So over time the passages I’ve chosen becomes a rather large, unstructured, unindexed “monster.” Others may have separate notebook for each topic and in the ideal world a carefully indexed list of passages organized by topics. That is more or less the way Locke did it.

At the outset he laid out an index keyed to each letter of the alphabet as shown in the photo on the left side of this page. Each of these boxes was, in turn, divided into five separate boxes corresponding to one of the five vowels. When he read something he wanted to add to his commonplace book, he added it to one of the lettered boxes based on the topic he chose for it (never a simple matter), for example “L” for a passage on letter writing. Then he placed it in the smaller box corresponding to the first vowel of the topic, for example “E” in letter writing.

Locke did not begin with a pre-determined set of topics; instead he created them during the course of his readings. They included a broad array of themes, each in turn, followed by the passage and a comment of his own. The exact method he used in doing this is unknown to me at this time. Did he create a set of pages for each letter, giving rise to a lengthy notebook-like document? Perhaps he explains this in his book, A Little Common Place Book, that I’ve yet to read in full.

While I do not select the topic for each saved passage, from time to time I go back to the yearly collection and attempt to do that after I’ve read the material. This is a very labor intensive, time consuming task. Imagine doing this for a yearly collection of 100 pages.

Because of my interest in the role of questions posed in literary works, I recently went back to look more closely at them in the second volume (2005 thru 2010) of my commonplace book. To extract questions from this electronic record, I simply entered a question mark in the Word Find box and recorded the question found.

I selected about three quarters of them for a total of 227 questions from 151 separate works of literature. Some books like Night Train to Lisbon had a great many questions, others like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road had only one, as did John Williams’ Stoner and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In most cases I selected questions that had a general application and avoided those that did not raise a larger issue. Those not selected were either trivial, uninteresting, or framed rhetorically without seeking information or an answer.

Then I classified each one of the questions in terms of the general topic, issue, or subject that it raised. The first round of this procedure identified 48 separate categories. Since there was considerable overlap between them, they were combined and reduced in number to 17 general themes. For example, questions initially classified as relating to marriage, friendship, romance, and relationships were combined into the general topic of Relationships. Those concerning memory, thinking, language, and neuroscience, were grouped together as Cognitive, while Life represented a combination of Fate, Luck, Work, and Future.

The ten most frequent categories with the number of times they occurred are shown below.

Category Frequency

Relationships 38
Literature 31
Life 25
Cognitive 22
Writing 19
Self 18
Age 14
Truth 9
Morality 8

The following categories were also recorded: Emotions (6), Success (6), Place (4), Judaism (4), Beauty (2), and Time (1).

I doubt if Locke ever attempted to analyze the meaning of his classifications or how they related to his life. But he did annotate them which I have never done while reading, but only sometime later in a separate essay. I have always felt that doing all this while reading really becomes a distraction and too time consuming. It also interrupts the flow of the reading experience. For me it is better to do it well after I have finished the book.

So on balance, I still find Locke’s procedure too complicated, too time-consuming to do while reading and not much less so afterwards either. But I do think the results are instructive, if you are willing to make the effort.