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The Commonplace Book

Have you ever had the experience where you learned a term for something you didn't know existed and yet knew the thing itself existed? It's an odd and gratifying experience, almost like a eureka moment: Aha! So that's what that is.


I had one of those moments about a month ago when I learned about the practice of keeping a commonplace book. For years I've kept a journal but a little more recently, I've started a separate notebook as a collection of quotes, vocabulary, and other ephemera from things I read that I deem noteworthy. I never thought much of it beyond its personal value to me, but then I learned this sort of notebook has a name and a rich history; they are called commonplace books.

My current commonplace book Credit: A. O'Brien

A quick Google search can lead you to some very pretty commonplace books, shops selling you notebooks to use as commonplace books, and YouTube videos telling you how to keep one. But hush, internet. One of the beauties of the commonplace book to me is how natural and easy it is: you don't need a special fancy pretty notebook. You don't need a routine. You don't need rules. You just need a place to collect quotes and other things that you personally deem beautiful and meaningful.


It's like its own miniature curio cabinet, but for words. HOW COULD I NOT LOVE THIS CONCEPT?!


For any voracious reader and certainly any writer, I would highly recommend this practice. And, although I just said there are no rules, there are few pointers that Todd Henry provides in his post "The Benefits of Keeping a Commonplace Book" that I think are really good:


  1. Keep only one and make it single-purpose: don't muddy the waters and share the commonplace with your own personal diary or grocery list or whatever. You wouldn't keep your daily vitamins in your curio cabinet, would you? Bad analogy maybe, but like The Offspring says in their song "Come out and Play": you gotta keep 'em separated.

  2. Review it regularly: right! What's the point of a collection of lovelies if you don't visit them once in a while? For writers and other creative folks, this is a source of inspiration, so sip from it regularly.

  3. Don't be too selective: there are already too many choices in our modern world. Don't stress about what to put in your commonplace book. If it struck your fancy, it shall liveth within. I handwrite the quotes into my notebook and sometimes if it's a long quote, I question why the hell I'm re-writing it. But then I sink into the act of copying and if I squint, I can argue it's also acting as a lesson in patience and zen something or other. In other words, sometimes it's good to do something manual that takes a bit of time. We're not that busy. Come on.

So there you have it: the commonplace book, my new hero. I love mine even more now that I know it has an official name. Let me share my latest entry, some quotes from novelist Jeanette Winterson from her famous essay in The Guardian titled "Why I Adore the Night":

"I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing -- their outer lives. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling -- their inner lives. They speak subjectively, they argue less, there are longer pauses.
To sit alone without any electric light is curiously creative. I have my best ideas at dawn or at nightfall, but not if I switch on the lights -- then I start thinking about projects, deadlines, demands, and the shadows and shapes of the house become objects, not suggestions, things that need to be done, not a background to thought."

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