Do you keep a commonplace book?

January 26, 2014 @ 4:17 pm | Filed under:

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Ryan Holiday on How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book”:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.

Not only did all these famous and great individuals do it. But so have common people throughout history. Our true understanding of the Civil War, for example, is a result of the spread of cheap diaries and notebooks that soldiers could record their thoughts in. Art of Manliness recently did an amazing post about the history of pocket notebooks. Some people have gone as far as to claim that Pinterest is a modern iteration of the commonplace book.

Fun to hear thoughts on this topic from someone outside homeschooling circles. Apart from a few quiet book bloggers, nearly everyone I know who is familiar with or interested in commonplace books is a homeschooler.

I’ve tried many interations of the practice over the years. (This recent Onion piece made me laugh, because I relate all too well to the feeling that just the right notebook and just the right pen will make, this time, all the difference—only re quote-keeping rather than creative writing.)

It’s always the copying out by hand that gets me. I bookmark quotes all over the place (via Diigo, Tumblr, or Evernote, depending on whether I want to share them, if indeed I want to share them at all). And I highlight the dickens out of the things I read on Kindle. But as methods go mine are pretty scattered—and, except for the Kindle highlights, only cover my internet reading. I’ve no single place to go to pore over passages that have struck me in, you know, books made of paper.

Mental Multivitamin has made a consistent practice out of commonplace-book-style blog posts for some ten years, recording quotes that struck her in the books she has read. Would that I had followed her example. The paper-loving side of me craves a handwritten version, but realistically I know myself (and my achy wrists) well enough to know that I would wind up with that dogeared stack of waiting books Ryan mentions in his post—the very thing he cautions you to avoid. Typing is always going to work better than writing, for me.

I wonder if I would keep up with a Commonplace Tumblr? Typing or pasting book quotes into that platform? Same principle, easier on the wrists. It would certainly be a steadier use of my tumblr than the haphazard link-collecting I do there. (My original vision for my tumblr back in 2009—good grief, has it really been that long?—was to collect links to all the reading I do online, or all significant reading, at least: a companion to my reading log. That didn’t pan out over the long haul.)


I began this post a couple of days ago and have since decided to give it a try. I’ve hit the reset button on my tumblr (figuratively) and am going to try to copy out book quotes into once or twice a month. It’s an experiment; I may lose steam after a while, but we’ll see.

(I could do it here instead, but when I post things here I feel more pressure—entirely self-imposed—to add my own commentary. Over there I don’t seem to mind tossing a quote onto the page and letting it speak for itself. Then, if I have more to say—as indeed turned out to be the case with the article above—I can bring it over here and expand upon it.)


While finishing up this post just now, I was amused to find “commonplace book” among my categories. I probably made a similar resolution years ago. Didn’t take, obviously.

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7 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Diana says:

    I have been pondering this all week! I guess I am getting a nudge to keep a Commonplace Book!!! I want to integrate it with my art journaling…..I might do a few posts on that one. Thanks for yet another reminder!

  2. sarah says:

    Pinterest is my commonplace book, although with images rather than words. Each of the pictures opens worlds of thought for me. I used to attach quotes to the pictures, but it messed up the visual too much, so now when I come across wonderful quotes I copy-paste them into a draft email which I keep for that purpose. Like you, I have achy wrists, and writing by hand is pretty much impossible for me these days. One thing I like about the copy-paste method is that all the different fonts, sizes, and indentations are retained, so my “commonplace draft email” is a charming higgedly-piggedly tumble of words 🙂

  3. Libby Jane says:

    I love your blog. A good friend of mine who has followed you for years keeps referring to things on your homeschooling-older-kids-blog. Is there still any way to get in on that?

  4. kimberlee says:

    Oh, this has been on my mind this week too! I’m a paper girl myself, but the thought of a blog with just quotes is mighty tempting. Although I agree with Ryan, ‘some things should take effort.’ I think the act of writing affects memory as well. I’ve been trying to visualize ‘the’ notebook with tabs on the sides for topics to organize things. I’ve previously tried just a sketch pad kept with me while I’m reading, but I think I need something less random so I can find things. (Then there’s my daughter who writes passages down on scraps of discarded envelopes, then tosses what she writes/doodles, then I rescue them from the trash as she write so beautifully.) I also tend to jot short quotes in our family book ( see here: ) and sometimes can’t decide if I want to put it in my book or the collective one. It’s good to read about others’ ideas and practices – thanks for posting this! And I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘commonplace book’, which sounds so perfect a name. Definitely true what Ryan said about understanding history through them – Hard Tack and Coffee being one of our Civil War faves. Sorry to ramble – so much to think about! 🙂

  5. Jennifer G. Miller says:

    I have a pile of different notebooks over the years that I would write sketches for book ideas, quotes from books, etc. they are just a hodgepodge, but enjoyable to go back. I don’t know if I’m disciplined enough to keep a Commonplace. I love to write, love to do calligraphy, but I find I’m typing more often. I also get bogged down thinking of the perfect C.P.B. and then afraid to ruin a new notebook when I don’t have my plans all mapped out.