The Tradition of Commonplace Books

old-books-436498_960_720A commonplace book is a book where you keep quotations and other intellectual ephemera gleaned from your reading. Many of us already keep a sort of commonplace book through Facebook or Twitter when we type out and share excerpts from favorite books and other pieces that strike us as interesting. This is a practice with a long and distinguished history.

American historian Robert Darnton describes commonplace books as they emerged in England:

Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.

There’s a great article on the benefits of keeping a commonplace book here. Whether you decide to keep one by hand or in digital form, the article will explain to you why you should consider creating your own book.

Oh, and if I could make a recommendation, try Leuchtturm notebooks (German for lighthouse). There are numbered pages, an index, and a small little pouch in the back to store a few loose pages. I don’t make any money from this – it’s just a recommendation.

I’m going back to my own commonplace book now. Enjoy your own journey!

3 thoughts on “The Tradition of Commonplace Books

  1. And this: “Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things…” Yes! Reading and writing are married, or at least seriously connected. The continuous effort to make sense of things. I just love that. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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