What is 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.
And if you still need a why–I’ll let this quote from Seneca answer it (which I got from my own reading and notes):
“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”
How to Do It (Right)
-Read widely. Read about anything and everything and be open to seeing what you didn’t expect to be there–that’s how you find the best stuff. Shelby Foote, “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.” If you need book recommendations, these will help.
-Mark down what sticks out at you as you read–passages, words, anecdotes, stories, info. When I read, I just fold the bottom corners of the pages. If I have a pen on me, I mark the particularly passages I want to come back to. I used to use flag-it highlighters, which can be great.
-Again, take notes while you read. It’s what the best readers do, period. it’s called “marginalia.” For instance, John Stuart Mill hated Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we know this based on his copies of Emerson’s books where he made those (private) comments. You can also see some of Mark Twain’s fascinating marginalia here. Bill Gates’ marginalia is public on a website he keeps called The Gates Notes. It’s a way to have a conversation with the book and the author. Don’t be afraid to judge, criticism or exclaim as you read.
-Wisdom, not facts. We’re not just looking random pieces of information. What’s the point of that? Your commonplace book, over a lifetime (or even just several years), can accumulate a mass of true wisdom–that you can turn to in times of crisis, opportunity, depression or job.
-After you finish the book, put it down for a week or so. Let it percolate in your head. Now, return to it and review all the material you’ve saved and transfer the marginalia and passages to your commonplace book.
-It doesn’t have to just be material from books. Movies, speeches, videos, conversations work too. Whatever. Anything good.
-Actually writing the stuff down is crucial. I know it’s easier to keep a Google Doc or an Evernote project of your favorite quotes…but easy has got nothing to do with this. As Raymond Chandler put it, “when you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.”