Why Keep a Commonplace Book?

Make your own Bible. Select and Collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you like the blast of trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.
Emerson Journals July 1836

Recently I published a short monograph on commonplace books, A Commonplace Book Primer. As regular readers of this blog are fully aware, keeping such a collection is an essential component of my reading experience.

In the Prologue I note that most of the readers I know or observe do not keep a record of the memorable passages they come upon in the books they read. The Primer is written in the belief that there is much to be gained by doing so.

There is nothing complicated about this. One need only think of it as a notebook where you record some of the ideas, questions, poems, or expressions that strike you as notable in some way.

The commonplace book concept originated in Greek and Roman antiquity for students and scholars to keep a record of the knowledge and moral wisdom of the day. It was intended as a source to draw upon in writing, speeches, education, and legal argument.

That was pretty much their sole purpose until the development of printed encyclopedias after which the practice gradually became less common and the few that were kept became a personal record of notable passages from a person’s reading history.

This remains its primary purpose today. I am often asked, “Why keep a commonplace book? After all, reading is such a great pleasure, why interrupt it by turning away from the page to spend the time recording a pithy passage?” It is not hard for me to answer.

First, I believe that keeping a commonplace book gives rise to a deeper form of reading. If you stop to think further about something you have read, then mark it in some way, and eventually add it to your commonplace book, you will inevitably read more carefully, more reflectively, and no doubt more slowly than you normally do.

Secondly, memories are fleeting and what we read is quickly forgotten. However, if we have added the quotations, poems, and fragments we wish to save to our commonplace book, they can be preserved and readily reviewed or drawn upon whenever we wish.

Finally, I have also come to believe there is genuine personal value served by keeping a commonplace book. Not only is it a fund of knowledge and source of new ideas, it can also lead to personal insight and understanding. This has been true for me each time I go back to review the entries I have made, as well as in the informal studies I have carried out on my own commonplace book.

In the Primer I review the history of commonplace books, their future in a world where electronic readers are becoming increasingly popular, and the variety of benefits the practice of keeping this kind of record can have for readers of all forms of literature.