As a child, I was horrified by people who wrote in books. In high school, I’d go through my textbooks at the start of the new school year and carefully the penciled scribbles and doodles left by previous students. Once I started college I was expected to write in books, to annotate books, to know how and what to annotate. At the time, I rejected the very thought of annotating books; it just felt wrong. I wasn’t going to to do it.
I successfully avoided annotating books until my senior year as an undergraduate English major, when I first took my first Chaucer class in Middle English. The Robinson Chaucer, while an admirable scholarly text, was not student friendly. There were no notes on the page; they were all appendices at the back of the book. I resorted to making careful glosses using a fine point orange-body Bic Pen (my favorite tool for annotating books for decades).
As I read more texts in Middle and Old English and Celtic languages in graduate school, I used marginal notes to help me find particular passages, and glossed difficult words and concepts that weren’t otherwise explained by the text. Once I started teaching, I glossed with colored pencils in order to make finding a particular passage or note easier while lecturing and leading discussions. I still regularly annotate books, and thought I might save others some time by explaining how and why I annotate.
What Does it Mean to Annotate
Here’s a formal dictionary definition of annotate from the American Heritage Dictionary:
v.tr.To furnish (a literary work) with critical commentary or explanatory notes; gloss.
v.intr.To gloss a text (s. v. American Heritage Dictionary annotate).And here’s the entry for annotation:
- The act or process of furnishing critical commentary or explanatory notes.
- A critical or explanatory note; a commentary (American Heritage Dictionary, s.v. annotation).
In other words, when we annotate a book or text, we mark it up, via marginal notes or glosses, marks in the text itself, or highlighting and underlining passages in order to create additional meaning and understanding for ourselves. By careful annotation, we make a text our own. Careful, thoughtful annotation helps us engage with the text and remember it.
Annotating books (or other reading matter) helps us read as an active, engaged reader more likely to remember what you read. When we annotate or mark texts to emphasize the important information, the goal is to emphasize the key points or concepts. Don’t simply highlight or underline everything. Prioritize the material that you know you will use later in your own work, or that you want to be able to find quickly and easily later.
Glossing and Marginal Notes
Glossing, or making notes in the margins and within the text itself can help enormously when you locate something you read and need to remember. Glossing can be either a note that summarizes or comments on a passage or it can be a label, for instance, adding the word distinction in the margin, to note when an author draws a distinction between two items, or analogy, when an author compares an unfamiliar concept to a familiar one. Or you might gloss something with short note to provide a definition of an unfamiliar term. This last method was the most common kind of gloss in earlier eras when scribes would annotate a foreign term with a marginal note, as in the image to the right from the 8th century Gospels of Lindisfarne. A monk named Aldred added Old English glosses between the lines of the Latin text of the Gosples as a translation aide. Medieval and earlier glosses like this eventually resulted in the modern glossary, a collection of terms appended to a book). Etymologically Modern English gloss derives from Middle English glose, from Old French, from Medieval Latin glōsa, from Latin glōssa, foreign word requiring explanation, from Greek, “tongue, language” (American Heritage Dictionary s.v. gloss 2).
Highlighting and Underlining
Highlighting, that is using a colored marker or pencil that colors text so that the text is still readable through the color, is a useful technique for annotating books. It is different from underlining in that the entire line(s) of text are colored in highlighting, whereas underlining usually means to draw a thin line under the line of text.
Don’t get carried away with underlining or highlighting. If you highlight or underline more than about 15% of a given page, you’re probably not prioritizing the information. Only highlight those concepts or points that are most important.
As an alternative to underlining or highlighting, consider annotating by drawing a vertical line in the margin to mark the passage in question, possibly with a note in the margin about why it’s important.
Annotation Styles and Codes
It’s a good idea to create your own personal style of annotating books. You might circle important concepts, and underline terms and definitions. Consider using the margin to summarize key points with a brief note. It can also be useful to use the margin to ask questions that are answered in that section of the text. Many readers use a question mark in the margin to make it easy to find a section or concept that they do not understand. It’s helpful to create your own personal style of annotating. You might circle important concepts, underline terms and definitions, or summarize key points with a brief note in the margin. You can see an example of one way of annotating a text here.
In some cases, you might want to have a short note on the flyleaf of a book, if you’ve used special annotation symbols just for that book.
Keep It Clean
Many readers particularly students planning to resell their textbooks hate the idea of annotating books. Sometimes it’s just a personal dislike; sometimes it’s because the book in question isn’t yours, so you shouldn’t mark it permanently. In that case, consider using post-its that you can remove before selling the books or keep in books you own. There are special stickynotes designed explicitly for making notes about a page as you read. Alternatively, I often take notes by hand in a notebook or pad of paper or on my computer as I read instead of or in addition to marking up the book.
If you routinely use .pdfs or ebooks, there are digital equivalents for the forms of annotation used in printed books. There are minor differences in the methods for accessing and creating the annotations based on the app in question, but the basic methodology is similar. Typically you can make digital marginal sticky notes, dog-ear pages or book mark them with a note, highlight text, and underline. With most .pdf readers, you can also draw circles, arrows, and other shapes, on the .pdf pages.
Annotating has two primary purposes; it allows us to find particular passages or ideas in a text, and it aids our memory and understanding because as we closely read and think about the text, and engage with it by annotations, we make the text our own. We add personal meaning and interpretation.
Tools for Annotation
You don’t actually need fancy tools to annotate books or documents. But the right tool can make a difference in legibility and utility.
Smaller sticky notes, the familiar 1 3/8 inch x 1 7/8 inch notes are useful for making marginal notes without marking the page. Page flags make it easy to find the pages and passages you know will be important without writing in your books.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take extensive notes about a page without writing on the page. These removable notes have tabs that you can label, making it easy to find the specific topic you’re looking for. And you can use them to take notes while you read and then remove them, either to save in a notebook for later use or discard when you no longer need them.
There are a lot of different kinds of sticky notes, with all sorts of uses. It’s often convenient to have a portable assortment to use not only for annotating, but for note-taking, and marking sections for review.
Taking notes while you read, either in the book or text itself or on paper is often particularly useful when you’re researching for use in something you write later. Cornell notes, which have a central area for the note, a margin for comments or page references, and a summary field at the bottom for questions or ideas to emphasize can be particularly helpful in annotating and taking notes about what you are reading.
The standard highlight is a neon yellow or hot pink felt marker. These double-ended mildliners are attractive pastels with a broad tip at one end and a narrow tip at the other, allowing for both highlight and underlining. Be cautious; thin paper will mean that the highlighting will show through the paper to the opposite side (thin-paged English literature anthologies are particularly prone to show through). You might consider avoiding felt-based ink highlighters in favor of a dry highlighter, or even a color pencil.
A dry or pencil-based highlighter will work better with thin paper. Though the colors of dry highlighters are lighter in general, they tend to be fluorescent and are still quite noticeable. Depending on how you sharpen them you can have a thin or a broad line of color.
These Platinum Preppies are highlighting fountain pens. They’re refillable with cartridges and you can replace the tips. They work surprisingly well on paper print-outs, for instance of journal articles. They can be too wet for the paper used in some books, and will smear photocopies. They have the virtue of being refillable, both an economic savings, and a favor to future generations.
A multi-pen with red, blue, and black ink, and a .05 mm mechanical pencil is exceedingly useful as an all-purpose writing and annotating tool. You can use it to make color-coded annotations, take notes, and you have erasable pencil too.
The utility of highlighting passages with very visible color is that they’re easy to find. But sometimes it’s better or easier to use pencil to make notes and marks that you can erase later. These Apsara pencils are smooth-writing dark graphite wood-case pencils and they come with a sharpener and an eraser. You will be surprised how nice these are to write with, and by the quality of the sharpener.
This post contains affiliate links.
Musgrave Pencil is a family-owned and operated pencil maker in Shelbyville, Tennessee that’s been making pencils since 1916. The Musgraves began by selling Tennessee Red Cedar slats to European pencil makers; remember that, it’ll be important later.
Musgrave’s Heritage Collection
While Musgrave Pencil Company makes a wide variety of custom and specialty decorated and branded pencils, I’m going to focus on their Heritage Collection pencils. Most of these pencils have been made and sold by Musgrave for decades, or perhaps more accurately, generations. I don’t think you can go wrong buying any of these pencils, but whether a pencil will work for you is very much dependent a writer’s personal preferences, and the writing task at hand. I like the fact that Musgrave has its own Pencil Variety pack, which is a great way to try out a number of individual pencils rather than buying them by the dozen. You can also buy singles of most Musgrave pencils via CW Pencils.
Musgrave 600 News
I’ve written about the Musgrave 600 News before, so I’m going to cheat and repeat myself, with some minor changes. The Musgrave 600 News is a round, glossy black eraserless pencil with prominent san-serif white print. I purchased it from CW Pencils for $0.50, and it was a bargain. As the CW Pencils description of the Musgrave 600 News suggests, this thick-cored dark pencil feels about like “3B/4B and looks a bit darker.” Musgrave 600 News isn’t terribly durable in terms of general hardiness (all that graphite is fragile) or point retention, but it produces a thick dark and very smooth line. Musgrave 600 News is a great pencil for writing, despite its tendency to smudge. I especially like it for note-taking, and on-the-fly writing. I’ll probably buy a couple more so I can always have one on hand because Musgrave 600 News smooth writers, produce a thick line, and are very dark. I’m thinking that they might work particularly well for handwriting practice. If you go to Musgravepencil.com, you can buy a dozen Musgrave 600 News for $6.25.
Musgrave Bugle 1816
The Musgrave Bugle 1816 is a round, eraserless, light toned (Bass wood?), natural finish pencil with an HB/#2 graphite core. The body of the pencil is coated with a clear glossy lacquer and has a white text imprint reading “Musgrave Pencil Inc. Shelbyville Tenn.” and “Bugle 1816,” flanked by an image of a bugle on either side. This pencil feels light weight in my hand, and the graphite seems a mite softer and darker to me than a standard #2. You can see some indications of grain and natural striations in the wood, and while the base color of the wood is lighter, the Musgrave Bugle 1816 is otherwise very similar to the basic pencils made by Henry David Thoreau and his family, as CW Pencils notes.
Musgrave 909 Ceres
The Musgrave Ceres pencil looks like a yellow-painted classic hex American school pencil, and that does seem to be the market it’s meant for. The graphite is standard #2/HB. It has a black imprint and the classic pink eraser, with a gold ferrule. It writes smoothly, and is perhaps a shade darker than the Bugle, but that might just be me. Based on pencils I’ve seen in collections, they used to make the Ceres in #1 graphite too.
Musgrave Harvest 320
The Musgrave Harvest 320 is another yellow hex body with a brown stripe in the ferrule, and a pink eraser. The imprint is in gold foil script (sorry it’s such a poor photo). The Harvest 320 is a reasonably smooth, perfectly pleasant pencil, a reliable #2/HB. The Harvest 320 also comes in a #1 graphite, and has a new sibling, the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro. I haven’t yet tried the Harvest 320 #1, but I plan to.
Musgrave My-Pal 2020
Musgrave’s My-Pal 2020 is a black round-bodied eraserless pencil. Descriptions, including Musgrave’s call this a “mini Jumbo.” It’s not all that mini; it’s 7” long, and 5/16″ in diameter, so it’s a little shorter than a standard pencil, and a little thicker, but not as jumbo as the standard thick red pencils I learned to write with in Kindergarten. If you look at the flat end, you’ll notice that the core is substantially thicker than a standard pencil. This pencil’s black body appears almost navy in some lights. The imprint “MY-PAL” and the Musgrave pencil name and “Shelbyville Tenn. – 2020” is in white paint. Musgrave’s My-Pal 2020 pencil was intended for young children, but I can see it being used for handwriting practice or drawing, and it might be an easier-to-use pencil for arthritic hands as well.
Musgrave Test Scoring 100
The Musgrave Test Scoring 100 is a silver-bodied pencil with a silver ferrule and pink eraser has an electro-bonded artificial graphite, designed to perform well on machine-scored scantrons. It isn’t rated, but it does feel a little more like a B than an HB, a 1 than a 2. The Musgrave Pencils Co Shelbyville Tenn is in tiny black print, and it’s a little crowded looking. In larger text, also in black, the pencil also shows two test boxes, one empty, and one filled in, Test Scoring 100″ with two empty test boxes before the 100. I would absolutely use this pencil for a scantron form or ballot that accepted graphite, but this strikes me as a decent writing pencil for long form writing, too, even if you do need to keep a sharpener close by.
Musgrave Heritage Collection 2019 Releases
In late 2019 Musgrave announced some new releases, including three new pencils. This was an unexpected treat, and all three of the new pencils have been roundly welcomed.
Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro
Musgrave says of the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro that “It features the same classic Harvest design, but it’s now made from California incense cedar with an upgraded core.” I say this is a really nice pencil. It looks very much like the Harvest 320, including an identical gold imprint and pink eraser, but the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pro lacks the brown ferrule stripe that the standard 320 has. Like the standard Harvest 320, Musgrave’s Harvest 320 Pro is a perfectly good, reliable, smooth-writing pencil, with a slightly softer, darker graphite core. Honestly, if you handed me one to use and didn’t tell me it was HB/2, I’d think it was 1/B.
Musgrave Tennessee Red Cedar
Musgrave began as a business by selling Tennessee red cedar slats to pencil-makers, before creating their own pencils. They found a new (albeit limited)source for red cedar slats, and thus, produced this Musgrave Tennessee Red Cedar pencil. This Musgrave post explains some of the issues about making Musgrave Tennessee Red Cedar pencils with slats that weren’t prepared with pencil production in mind. The cores aren’t perfectly centered. Some of the seams on these pencils are iffy, and some seams aren’t joined. That said, these pencils are truly beautiful; the natural red cedar colors and grain are lovely, and there’s a lot of variation from pencil to pencil. The wood bodies of these pencils is not stained, just sealed with a transparent lacquer. They have a gold ferrule, and a white eraser, with a red ink imprint that says Musgrave Pencil company, an M in a diamond, and Genuine Tennessee Red Cedar. The Tennessee Red Cedar is in a script face, followed by a tiny red circle with three stars, a nod to the Tennessee flag. The poor point on this is my fault; I forget to finish sharpening it. I’ve had good luck using an Apsara hand-held sharpener on these. This pencil I sharpened with the Kum/Blackwing two-step, and it’s not as satisfactory, in my opinion, as the point from the Apsara.
Musgrave’s Tennessee Red Cedars smell like red cedar when you sharpen them (think about the way your grandmother’s cedar chest smells). Each pencil is different in appearance. Some are darker red than others, some are striped with a combination of Red Cedar’s natural light and darker striations. But all of them are lovely, and they write very nicely. The graphite in these Tennessee Red Cedars reminds me of the graphite in the Musgrave Harvest 320 Pros; smooth, a little darker and softer than a standard 2 maybe, but wonderful to write with. Sharpening these has been a challenge for some; I’ve had great success using an inexpensive Apsara Longpoint Sharpener, free with boxes of Apsara Pencils, or 20 Apsara Long Point Sharpeners for about $5.00 on Amazon.
I really love these pencils. They’re a treat, and were particularly welcome companions on dark days this winter.
Musgrave Single Barrel 106
The Musgrave Pencil Co. catalog page says this about these pencils:
At the end of the 1930s, Colonel Musgrave sent his final export of Tennessee Red Cedar slats off to Europe’s pencil factories. Somehow, a small number of burlap sacks filled with slats missed the boat. Years later, the sacks would be discovered in the wreckage of an ill-fated storage building that had collapsed.
These Musgrave Single Barrel 106 pencils are a genuine limited release, one that’s limited by the availability of materials. These hex pencils have a natural finish over the lovely grain of the antique Red Cedar, a black end-cap, and a smooth #2/HB core. These are very limited, and priced accordingly; two for $18, or $10.00 each, but they are truly lovely to hold and great for writing. It is a dark graphite, but to me it feels a little harder than it looks. The graphite is not as nice as say a Blackwing Natural, but the pencil is lovely to use and feels good in the hand, with a perfectly good core. The 106 is a reference to Episode 106 of the Erasable Podcast, which you should absolutely listen to because it features Henry Hulan III, of Musgrave Pencils.
Via Michael Bruening:
I never used to have anything I’d call a TBR (To Be Read) pile of books. Even in grad school by using a reading plan I managed to keep up with reading for school, work, and still keep the circulation department of multiple libraries busy.
But now, now I have a colossus of a TBR stack, though most of it is digital these days. That said, I still have somewhere around 15 printed codex books, mostly in my field to read. I’ve had a loose schedule of sorts for years, mostly based on what I’m currently researching, but this year, in part because there are So Many Books, I decided to organize a list and create a reading plan, much like those I made in grad school in order to keep up with long lists of required reading.
As I compiled my list, which required me to sort through books printed and digital, I was reminded of other reading plans. There were the Great Books sorts of institutionalized plans wherein reading Great Books was thought to be a sure pathway to being a Great Person yourself; these sometimes took the form of actual books produced and accompanied by a reading plan, sometimes by subscription, as in the Harvard Classics l or in the form of a build your own list like The Modern Library. Just search “reading list” and you’ll be overwhelmed with all the lists of books you should read.
In a similar vein, given the current emphasis on intentionality and reading for personal improvement, just searching the Web for “personal reading plan” will provide you any number of how to guides for creating your plan.1)Not to mention countless schedules for reading the entire Bible over the course of the year; this practice dates back at least to the medieval monastic tradition for Christians, and far longer for Jews. I even found a nifty 2020 schedule for reading all of Shakespeare during the course of the year.
I’m in the early stages of my plan as yet, with not much more than a very large multi-page checklist organized by topic/project. Just listing and categorizing the books was exceedingly helpful in creating a plan. I already use Library Thing and Goodreads for book tracking and inspiration. They were useful in this instance in tracking books I have but have not yet read, and what I need to reserve at a library. I use Calibre to sort and categorize and tag ebooks, making it easy to locate all the books I’ve tagged TBR or to put on hold at the library.
Once I had my checklist of categorized books, the next step was scheduling and finding specific times to read. I generally read fiction at night and for a few hours each weekend. During my week-day working hours, I concentrate on non-fiction and books in my field and related to current writing projects. Even more importantly, I’m blocking out specific times to read specific books. It’s not enough to just put Read Cunliffe’s Ancient Celts second Ed on a to-do list. I need to block out when I’m going to read it (Friday afternoons 12-2). The blocking-out-of-time is one of the most useful techniques I know in terms of actually getting things read or done. I schedule specific items to read an hour or two at a time during the week as part of my regular bullet journal scheduling. I also make sure I always have something queued up on my iPhone for those odd quarter-hours waiting for someone else to do something.
1. ↑ Not to mention countless schedules for reading the entire Bible over the course of the year; this practice dates back at least to the medieval monastic tradition for Christians, and far longer for Jews.
I’m using pencils a lot these days, especially for drafts and taking notes. I’m starting to be a little more particular and leaning firmly towards darker graphite or the 2B graphite rating. I liked the black Staedtler Norica HB I tried last year so much I decided to try the blue Norica 2B. My black Noricas came from Office Depot last year, and were exceedingly affordable, but even the Amazon price isn’t terrible.
I like the blue Norica 2B even better than the black Norica HB (#2 pencil, in American graphite ratings). The eraser is not great, but it’s not terrible either. The Norica 2B graphite is really smooth and fairly dark, but not so soft that the pencil requires constant sharpening and the graphite smears. These made-in-Thailand Staedtler Norica 2B pencils are both nice enough to use every day and affordable enough to give away and to use away from home (at the library for instance) without feeling bad if I lose one. I even like the blue paint with silver text of the wood (though not quite as much as the black and silver of the the Norica HB). I notice Johnny Gamber of Pencil Revolution also likes both the Norica HB and the Norica 2B.
I’ll have to see if Staples carries the 2B Noricas. I bought mine at Amazon, and have already ordered more. I’m told that both the HB black Noricas and the 2B blue Noricas routinely go on sale at Staples and Office Depot for back to school; I’ll have to watch. Staples currently lists 36 black HB Noricas for $14.59. Notice that Office Depot has blue Norica HB (not 2B) pencils listed for $9.69 for 36 pencils. These are not the same pencil; if you look closely you’ll see that these pencils say Staedtler norica 132 46. Mine don’t.
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.
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.1)Richard Lanham. Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press: Berkeley, second edition, 1994. p.
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.2)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 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.3)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.
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.4)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.
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).
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 WordPress.com 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.
1. ↑ Richard Lanham. Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. University of California Press: Berkeley, second edition, 1994. p. 2. ↑ 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 3. ↑ 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. 4. ↑ 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.
When I refer to “Pencils for Writing,” I’m making a distinction between pencils suited to writing vs pencils better suited for drawing. There are far more high-quality affordable wooden pencils than I ever realized. I’ve tried four more for more pencils since my first post about wood-case pencils. I’d happily use any of these four pencils for writing, but I’m particularly pleased with the Staedtler Norica, the General’s Cedar Pointe #1, and the Musgrave News 600 as reliable, pleasant to write with, attractive, affordable pencils.
These Staedtler Norica pencils came from Office Depot; I saw them mentioned online as a back to school bargain. They were $10.00 for 36, or 0.28 each. I like the glossy black body, the silver print and the white eraser with the silver ferrule. They feel good in my hand; the finish is super smooth. The first pencil I used was great for the first page, and then I hit an unpleasant gritty section for a second. This repeated a couple more times, but by about an inch into the graphite and several pages down the road, the writing was consistently smooth and pleasantly dark. The Norica writes a little on the dark side of #2/HB. The eraser is not great, but not unusable, either. At .28 each, I’d definitely buy these again. If I were shopping for a school, I’d get this pack of 50 Staedtleter Norris pencils with 50 eraser caps for $6.00 from Amazon.
General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2HB
The General’s #333 Cedar Pointe 2HB is another natural finish pencil, made of unvarnished cedar with a dark eraser and an aged or bronzed looking ferrule. While the General’s Cedar Pointe #2 is a perfectly reasonable HB #2 pencil. It’s not a favorite. That said, I’d buy it again because it’s a great pencil, just not for me. A single General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 2HB pencil is $1.00 at CW Pencils.
General’s Cedar Pointe #333 – 1
I really like this pencil. It’s definitely darker than the Cedar Pointe HB/2, with the same natural finish cedar body, ferrule and eraser. I like this pencil very much; enough that I’m tempted to buy a dozen. It’s a solid, attractive dark-graphite pencil for writing. A single General’s Cedar Pointe from CW Pencils is $1.00. A dozen Cedar Pointe #1s with free shipping from Amazon is a bit under $10.00.
Musgrave News 600
The Musgrave News 600 is a round, glossy black eraserless pencil with prominent san serif white print. I purchased it from CW Pencils for $0.50, and it was a bargain. As the CW Pencils description of the Musgrave News 600 suggests, this thick-cored dark pencil feels about like “3B/4B and looks a bit darker.” Musgrave News 600 isn’t terribly durable in terms of general hardiness (all that graphite is fragile) or point retention, but it produces a thick dark and very smooth line. Musgrave News is a great pencil for writing, despite its tendency to smudge. I’ll probably buy a couple more so I can always have one on hand because Musgrave News 600 are extremely smooth writers, produce a thick line, and are very dark. I’m thinking that they might work particularly well for handwriting practice.
I wanted a way to see the time at night without constantly checking my phone. I was initially looking for an analog watch, but this Wirecutter review of alarm clocks caught my eye, especially the Oct17 Wooden Alarm Clock caught my eye.
The clock is shaped like a very large Toblerone chocolate bar, has a small footprint and can be set to display the time when you tap it. The wooden clock comes in several different finishes, including an attractive light bamboo. The time display is very readable, even without my glasses. The clock can be set display the date and time in alteration, or the time, temperature and humidity. The alarm sound (you can set several alarms) is really annoying, but the alarm would wake me up if needed. As the Wirecutter review notes, setting the clock is a little tricky; it’s modal and involves correctly pressing one of the three tiny buttons in the correct sequence. Setting the clock is manageable however, and for the price (under $20.00), this clock is a bargain.
The clock is powered by a USB cable and AC adapter plug; my clock arrived with a non-functioning plug, but the company replaced it immediately. The plug has a power light that shows when the adapter is working. The clock uses three AAA batteries as a backup power supply (not included). What I like best about the clock is that I have it set so the display is off unless I tap the clock, or make a loud enough sound to wake the display. This clock does exactly what I needed, is attractive, easy to read, and takes up very little space.
I couldn’t be happier.
Brent Simmons’ NetNewsWire is back. NetNewsWire 5.0b4 is a free and open source RSS reader for macOS. You can download the NetNewsWire 5.0 Beta version now, or wait if you’re not experienced regarding using beta software (this means being prepared to have bad things happen, like losing your data). Seriously, don’t use a beta if you can’t afford to lose data. That’s not a reflection on NetNewsWire or Ranchero; that’s the nature of beta software.
If you are comfortable with beta software, the NetNewsWire Help book is online. Don’t miss the keyboard shortcuts. Me, I’m already using NetNewsWire, and am so happy to have it back. It took me two minutes to import my feeds via an OPML file I exported from Feedly. They imported perfectly, including the folders I set up to keep the organizd. I’ve enabled the Safari extension to make adding new feeds something I can do directly from Safari.
I’m able to go through the 170+ feeds I subscribe to easily and mark the ones I want to come back to or blog with a star, which will save them locally so I can write offline. The keyboard shortcuts make it so much easier, and more time efficient than Feedly. I’ll easily save at least an hour a day just by using NetNewsWire.
I couldn’t be happier to have an old friend back. Thanks so much Brent.
As fond as I am of my Kuru-Toga mechanical pencil, lately I’ve also been using old-school wood-case pencils. I started using mechanical pencils in the 1990s because the readily available wood case pencils I purchased at office supply stores weren’t reliable; a brand that was fine in January, when I went back and bought them again in May would be inferior. The graphite would break frequently when I tried to write, or was broken inside the pencil, or write in such a scratchy abrasive way that it was difficult to write at speed, and writing was already physically difficult for me. I hadn’t used a wood-cased pencil since at least 2000 until late 2018.
While Christmas shopping in 2018 I stumbled upon an amazing specialty retailer of wooden pencils, CW Pencils. I discovered that there were a lot more pencils than I knew about. There’s a lot of variety, and quite a lot of pleasurable-to-use wood-case pencils. This year I bought a bunch of single pencils in an effort to find some I liked enough to buy more of.
I’m primarily interested in pencils to use for long-form writing, and fairly long writing sessions. I draft a lot in pencil, as well as take research notes, and sketch out roughs for diagrams using pencils. In addition some specialist research libraries only allow you to take notes with wood case pencils (no pens, no laptops, no mechanical pencils). I asked CW Pencils for suggestions regarding pencils to try, and read a lot of pencil reviews and listened to some podcasts by people who are knowledgeable about pencils.
Even the pre-sharpened pencils were sharpened with the Apsara Long Point pencil sharpener that came with an Apsara Writing Kit of Indian pencils I bought on Amazon. The eraser I used, even if the pencil has an eraser, was a Sakura SumoGrip eraser, though I did at least try the built-in erasers on pencils that have them. The paper I used was generic composition notebooks (made from sugar cane by-products) and Japanese notebook paper. I used each pencil for at least a week, including several 90-minute writing sessions per pencil.
The following list of wood-case pencils I’ve tried is opinionated rather than definitive. I’m buying pencils with the intent of using them, not saving them. Your mileage will very likely be different from mine. And I may well change my mind; I often do.
Perhaps in part because of good marketing and clever branding, the high-end pencils you hear the most about are the re-imagined and re-branded Palomino Blackwings made by CalCedar. These are sold by the dozen, and run between $25.00 and $28.00 a box.1)There are four standard Palomino Blackwings models, available always. In addition four limited editions are produced a year. The limited editions often sell out quickly and trade on the after market for more money, since they’re a collectable. People get a little religious about Blackwings. I agree that they’re fun and I really love seeing other people enjoy their pencils, but I’m looking for work tools, not collectables or investments. Blackwings strike me as the graphite equivalent of Montblanc fountain pens.
I tried pencils from two Palomino Limited Editions, as well as other U. S-made pencils, German pencils, Danish pencils, Indian pencils, and Japanese pencils. I bought all but the Palomino and Apsara pencils from CW Pencils, who have been an absolute delight to deal with.
For those who want to cut to the chase, the pencils I’m definitely going to order more of are:
- Mitsu-Bishi 9852EW Master Writing HB $1.30 ea. @ CW Pencils
- Kitaboshi 9006 Academic Writing $1.00 ea./$12.00 a dozen @ CW Pencils
- Viking Element 1 $2.00 ea. @ CW Pencils
- Caran D’Ache Bicolor 999 $2.90 ea. @ CW Pencils
I’ve learned two particularly useful things about my personal pencil preferences:
- I prefer slightly softer and darker than standard HB (the Viarco Desenho and CW Editor graphite are really harder than I prefer).
- I’m partial to natural finish pencils.
I’ve listed the pencils in alphabetical order, not the order I used them or like them. I used each pencil for at least a full day of writing (that’s several pages of writing). I am a terrible photographer, and am taking these photos with my phone. They really don’t do the pencils justice, particularly in terms of color; my apologies.
Graphite Wood-Case Pencils
I mostly use graphite pencils for drafts and research notes, but I also do a fair amount of diagraming and crude sketches of layouts and UIs.
Apsara Wood World Extra Dark
This pencil has a pale beige-ish pencil body, with red and green images, green writing for the label and a green end, no eraser. I have no idea what the images are. This pencil sharpens beautifully, and writes very smoothly. One of the pencils in the Apsara Writing Kit.
Apsara Absolute Extra-Strong and Extra-Dark
The Apsara Absolute Extra-Strong and Extra-Dark has a silver body, no ferrule, with white writing and the end is an attractive blue. Sharpens easily, writes smoothly. Maybe a little darker than a standard HB. This was one of the pencils in the Apsara Writing Kit.
Apsara Platinum Exra-Dark “for good handwriting”
A black body with silver stripes, and the end is black. Sharpens well, writes smoothly. I honestly can’t perceive any difference between the Absolute and the Apsara Platinum. They both write really well, and erase fairly easily. One of the pencils in the Apsara Writing Kit.
General’s Big Bear 909T
My first “jumbo” wood-case pencil since elementary school, though this General’s Big Bear is black not red. It’s large, round, and this one, unlike the pencils from elementary school, has an eraser. It was a little tricky to sharpen; I ended up buying a sharpener with a larger hole. The eraser is tolerable, but I wouldn’t want to rely on it. It takes more effort to write in terms of moving this pencil across the paper than I’m comfortable with. This one is not for me.
General’s Carbo-Weld Scribe HB
General’s Carbo-Weld Scribe HB is a very green round pencil, no ferrule or eraser. It’s a bit difficult to write with for very long, both because of the shape, and because of the graphite. Don’t think I’ll keep this one.
Kitaboshi 9006 Academic Writing
The Kitaboshi 9006 Academic is my favorite of the wood-case pencils I’ve tried so far. I like everything about it — the darkness, the smoothness, the white eraser, even the gold print and the burgundy body. This pencil does seem to need more frequent sharpening than some, but it was so pleansant to write with I hardly noticed. I liked the Kitaboshi 9006 so much that I kept returning to it when another pencil became unpleasant.
Mitsubishi 9000 General Writing HB “Made by elaborate process”
I like the green body of the Mitsubishi 9000 General Writing pencil. This pencil seems softer and smoother than the Tombow 8900 HB. Maybe a touch darker? I’m not really sure. Certainly a good experience, though not a favorite pencil at this point.
Mitsubishi 9852EW Master Writing HB
This Mitsubishi 9852EW Master Writing HB is a very pretty pencil, and easy to sharpen to a good point. I like the natural finish very much. I also like the black / dark grey eraser, which is pretty good, though my Sumo is better. The green foil labeling is attractive against the natural finish. The writing is pretty standard for HB in terms of darkness, but it’s exceedingly smooth. This may be my favorite of all I’ve tried so far.
Mitsubishi 9850 HB
This pencil has an attractive dark red body (cranberry or maybe burgundy?) with a white eraser. It’s startlingly similar to the Kitaboshi 9006 Academic Writing pencil. I like it; it writes well and sharpens beautifully though I think I like the Kitaboshi 9006 better.
Moon Products Try-Rex B46-2
This is an attractive pencil, with a slightly different “rounded” hex shape, and an eraser. It’s not truly triangular, but it is noticeably different from the standard hex. I like it well enough, but I suspect I’ll pass it on to someone who will enjoy it more.
Nataraj 621 Ruby HB
This is a pretty red and black striped pencil from India with gold foil printing on the body. Fairly smooth to write with, and sharpens easily. It’s a little darker, I think, than a conventional HB. Not a favorite, but perfectly usable. I’ve already passed it on.
Palomino Blackwing 4
This is the first 21st century Palomino I’ve tried, and I got it mostly because of the Mars theme. It’s the “soft” core, and it does glide across the page. I like it fine, but it’s not necessarily the love of my life.
I’m a lover of libraries, planning on returning to school for an M.L.S. so this pencil called to me at its release; how could I not like a pencil this pretty that glows in the dark? This is the “firm” core but it’s almost as smooth as the “soft” core of the Palomino 4. It has me curious about the Blackwing Natural, which has the Extra Firm core.
Palomino Forest Choice #2
I very much like the looks of this natural finish pencil. I’m apparently partial to natural finishes. Natural finish wood pencils are apparently a thing, which is very good news. The Palomino Forest Choice is a good everyday pencil, especially for the price. Forest Choice is a great pencil to give to the curious, and I like that it’s FSC. I expect I’ll buy more to give to people who want to borrow a pencil, and I’ll definitely be using it a lot.
Tombow 2558 HB High Quality “For General Writing”
This is a traditional yellow-body hex pencil with a pink eraser and a brass colored ferule. I like it just fine for basic writing. Sharpens well, and erases easily.
Tombow Mono 100 F “For high-precision drafting”
I like the dragonfly logo. I like this one a lot. It really keeps a point well. I will probably use this one for diagrmas rather than for long form drafts. This was one of the pencils Alyx of CW Pencils recommended.
Tombow 8900 HB
Smoother feeling than the Viarco Desenho HB. A little darker, too. I like the dark green body and the gold dragonfly. Holds a point fairly well. I like it quite a bit.
Viarco Desenho HB
This wood-case pencil was a little odd feeling while I sharpened it; not bad, just different. It has really nice point retention but it required more effort while writing, like there was a little more friction. It’s a pretty thing, with dark cranberry and gold print, but not, I think, for me.
Viking Element 1 HB
I like the Viking Element 1 pencil very much. It writes easily, and it’s noticeably darker than most of the pencils I use. I like the slim width, the black body and the Viking ship logo (I confess to being inordinately fond of the logo). I can’t find anyplace to buy a box of them, so I’ll likely buy singles at CW Pencils. I think the difference between the Viking Element 1 and the slightly more expensive Element 2 is just that the Element 2 wood-case pencil has an eraser, and this one, the Element 1, does not.
Editing and Checking Pencils
I use these for edits and for annotations on hard copy and books, especially marginal glosses.
Caran d’Ache Bicolor 999
This is a double-ended pencil with blue on one end and red on the other. I like it very, very much. It’s smooth, it erases reasonably well for a color pencil, and I really like the shades of red and blue. Easy to sharpen, too, which is not a small thing for a color pencil. This is one I’ll be buying again.
Caran D’Ache & CW Pencils The Editor
This is another bi-color pencil, but this one has graphite on one end and red on the other. The red seems to be the same red as that of the Caran d’ache Bicolor 999. The graphite is a little scratchy, but I like the convenience of having both red and graphite on the same pencil, which I really like.
Mitsu-Bishi Hard 7700 “Strong Needle Point”
A very pretty red wood-cased pencil with gold printing. The red is a little pale, but it sharpens well. It’s a little difficult to write with, but the Mistsu-Bishi Hard 7700 works very well for annotating, particularly if I want to use fine lines to mark up text.
1. ↑ There are four standard Palomino Blackwings models, available always. In addition four limited editions are produced a year. The limited editions often sell out quickly and trade on the after market for more money, since they’re a collectable. People get a little religious about Blackwings. I agree that they’re fun and I really love seeing other people enjoy their pencils, but I’m looking for work tools, not collectables or investments. Blackwings strike me as the graphite equivalent of Montblanc fountain pens.