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The Commonplace Book Lives

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In one of my earliest blog posts on  February 8, 2002, I compared blogs and commonplace books. Since then a number of other bloggers have made the same comparison; it is in fact, now a commonplace to compare blogs and commonplace books. Many are echoing Dori Smith’s discussion of her blog as her “Backup Brain”; something which sounds very much like a commonplace book.

In the eighteen years since I compared blogs and commonplaces books, a number of bloggers have begun using blogs as commonplace books. As notebooks for journaling and bullet journals have become commonplace, the commonplace book is once again thriving, in both analog and digital forms.

The Commonplace

Before examining the function and production of commonplace books, it’s helpful to understand the role of commonplaces in rhetoric and literary history. The commonplace as Richard Lanham explains is:

a general argument, observation, or description a speaker could memorize for use on any number of possible occasions. So an American statesman who knows he will be asked to speak extempore on the Fourth of July might commit to memory reflections on the bravery of the Founding Fathers, tags from the Declaration of Independence, praise of famous American victories, etc. A few scattered traditional loci: death is common to all; time flies; the contemplative vs. the active life; the soldier’s career vs. the scholar’s; praise of a place as paradisiacal; the uses of the past; a short, celebrated life vs. a long, obscure one.[ref]Richard Lanham. Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press: Berkeley, second edition, 1994. p. [/ref]

Commonplace is a literal translation of the Greek koinoi topoi, similarly literaly translated in Latin as loci communes. Commonplaces were in a sense “touchstones” to borrow the phrasing of Matthew Arnold; language that described ideas and experiences that were if not actually universal, were at least common.[ref]In some ways, commonplaces in the pre-digital eras functioned as memes do now. They were a short hand way of referencing common experiences or understanding[/ref] The use of commonplaces in Classical rhetorical training was a standard part of the composition stage of invention, or prewriting in the rhetorical jargon of the current era.[ref]For an example of commonplaces in use, see Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Hamlet 3.1.58ff. Hamlet’s soliloquy is presented in the form of an academic debate, of the sort a student might be assigned. It’s a string of commonplaces in opposition “for” and “against” suicide. [/ref]

The Commonplace Book

The commonplace book was a hand-written collection of commonplaces, copied by individuals as they read. Passages that caught the eye or attention of the reader were copied to a book for later personal use and contemplation. These brief passages, often with commentary from the collector, were (theoretically) ordered topically or thematically.

In large part because of the influence of Erasmus, who provided instructions for creating and organizing a commonplace book in his De Copia (1512), the creation of a commonplace book became part of standard educational practices during the Humanist flowering of the Renaissance. The theory was that students would glean commonplaces and sententiae (aphorisms, idioms, proverbs and other witty sayings) from their reading in Latin and Greek, copy and organize them topically in their own commonplace books, and thus commit them to memory to be recalled at will in order to construct a persuasive argument.[ref]In De Copia Erasmus urged the use of a well-organized commonplace book, and provided an elaborate schema for organizing a commonplace with an eye to being able to find just the right commonplace.

The philosopher John Locke used a commonplace book while at Oxford in the 1650s and advocated their use. In 1706 Locke published A New Method of Making Common-Place Books, wherein Locke documented his somewhat fussy method of creating an index for his commonplace book.[/ref]

Over the centuries commonplace books increasingly moved away from commonplaces collected to be trotted out at need (whether in writing or in oral argument), to collections of whatever the writer found personally interesting and worth remembering. The commonplace book became less a thematically organized rhetorical compendium for later use and more a personal reading journal and memory aid, increasingly necessary as the efficiency and economy of printing presses rather than scribes dramatically increased the availability of things to read.

For about three hundred years or so, people who read and people who wrote whether books, poetry or letters, kept a commonplace book. In the case of writers, Milton for instance, there’s often a direct connection between the contents of their commonplace books, and what they were writing.

Swift, in his “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet” suggests that

A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there. For, take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his.

Swift’s reference to the commonplace book as “a supplemental memory” is an accurate one. Away from the schoolroom, the commonplace book became a collection of whatever the writer deemed of interest, ranging from poetry and literary extracts, to jokes, financial memoranda, recipes, lists of all sorts, and frequently incorporating aspects of a day book or journal as the writer’s own thoughts were memorialized in their commonplace book. Some commonplace books were neatly ordered by topic or theme; others were more exuberant in style, with every blank page filled with text in no particular order.

In Italy a similar convention regarding taking notes derived from reading resulted in the zibaldone, Italian for ”a heap of things” or “miscellany.” Zibaldone tend to be small in format (though not always in the number of pages).

Page from the commonplace book of Matthew Day at the Folger Library
Page from the commonplace book of Matthew Day at the Folger Library

For some examples of commonplace books, see Matthew Day’s Commonplace book at the Folger. Matthew Day (1574–1661) was the mayor of Windsor, and had a fondness for poetry.

The British Library has placed a digital version of several pages of Margaret Bellasys’s c. 1630 commonplace book online. She was also fond of poetry, and her commonplace book includes poems by Shakespeare, John Donne, and Philip Sidney, among others.

The British Library also has Milton’s Commonplace book online. You can very much see Milton’s interest in divorce, and the nature of censorship and the public press being worked out in his commonplace book. You can see something similar in the commonplace books of Jefferson, at the Library of Congress; Jefferson kept two commonplace books, one for literature and one for law. The Library of Congress also has Walt Whitman’s commonplace book.

While many early examples of commonplace books were clearly made of whatever paper was handy, with various sizes and kinds bound together in signatures and even single leaves as more pages were needed. By the time of Emerson and Thoreau (who actually kept a joint commonplace book for a while) it was fairly simple to buy a blank bound book, in both utilitarian and affordable bindings or expensive and elegant bindings. Increasingly commonplace books moved away from the academic in nature to medatational reflections that might include the owner’s personal observations, lists of various sorts, financial memoranda,  sketches, pressed flowers and botanical samples, family records and genealogy notes, even recipes, as well as extracts copied from other works. This description of the way one reader uses a notebook as a reading journal to record quotations that are personally compelling is essentially a commonplace book.

With the resurgence of interest in hand-written journals, bullet journaling and commonplace books, there are a number of reasonable analog options for a commonplace book or a journal. I’d suggest either a hardcover artists sketchbook, if you want to include ephemera, or a Rhodia Webnote book if you’re thinking primarily of notes derived from your reading and life. You’ll want decent paper, acid free or very low acid, and fairly weighty; 65 gsm or better. I wouldn’t use a current Leuchtturm1917 or Moleskine because of the questionable paper quality. I would look at Baron Fig or Scribbles that Matter (affiliate links), for instance, or a well-bound blank sketchbook.

If you’re  inclined towards a digital commonplace book, a free Blogger or site will work admirably for you, as will Tumblr. There are also a number of note-taking apps; Evernote, Ulysses, Bear, OneNote, Notability—even Apple’s Notes will work, among many others. You can also opt for a blended approach; a hand-written commonplace book that you routinely photo or scan and then upload for indexing and safe-keeping.