For hundreds of years people used what were called Commonplace books to help them learn, remember important information, and generally improve their overall knowledge base and intellectual ablities. Here’s the thing. You can, too. Maybe you already do.
Commonplace books were a lot like intellectual scrapbooks where the owner would copy down passages or quotes that they have found interesting or worth remembering as well as, in many cases, their own annotations on the material. This process came to be referred to as “commonplacing”. They were usually organized under various headings and could include anything from recipes to literary passages. But they weren’t notebooks like the kind we keep in school, because they were much more personal. Neither were they diaries since they were much more than the stream-of-consciousness stuff that randomly kicks around in our minds or a record who we had lunch with. Most often they were used as an organized source of knowledge and wisdom the owner could quickly draw upon.
The idea itself originated in the classical period as a memory device for orators. “Commonplaces” were seen as general points of assumed knowledge, discussion topics, or go-to arguments that someone could reference in composition or during a debate, like: “if you work hard you’ll be successful”. Or, “Slow walkers should just stay indoors, ffs!” The Greeks called them Konoi Topoi (general points) and the Romans, Communes Loci. Unfortunately the English translation of commonplaces doesn’t fully convey the idea or what commonplace books would become. More often than not, there was hardly anything “common”, in the sense of mundane, at all about the knowledge they contained.
From there, commonplace books had a long and popular career in the Western World. While they did have some predecessors in antiquity, they really came into their own during the Renaissance. The great Renaissance humanist scholar Erasmus was among the first to zealously advocate for their use as an educational tool, and would be joined by many others who saw their potential not only in learning, but in personal development. Not the least of which was the famed English philosopher, John Locke.
For a time, the commonplace books of learned men were even published for others to derive insights from them. But as the Enlightenment began to take shape in the 18th Century, and anthologies and encyclopaedias became more popular, commonplace books were published less and less as “authoritative” knowledge became less important.
But this didn’t mean they were gone altogether. People still kept them for themselves so that they could take note of and remember anything they deemed personally significant enough to remember. Among some of the historical greats that kept them (in no particular order): Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Henry David Thoreau, Francis Bacon, Jon Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson – and that’s only scratching the surface.
Emerson actually summarized what to keep in mind when creating a commonplace book:
“Make your own Bible. Select and collect all those words and sentences that in all your reading have been to you the blast of a trumpet out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul”.
And while commonplace books were intended to help their owners remember things for the purposes of writing, conversation, or plain old self-development, the intention behind them was not to simply memorize and repeat what others had said. In fact, by the 18th century, simply parroting others’ words was considered pedantic, impolite, and boorish – #socialmedia.
Adding one’s own annotations and thoughts came to be held as a crucial part of commonplacing. It encouraged thinking on one’s own over just memorizing and repeating what others had said – a practice known helps us memorize and understand material
Unfortunately, as time went on commonplace books began to be used less and less. Their popularity began to dwindle in the 19th century and they effectively disappeared from public consciousness in the early 20th Century.
But here’s the thing, some people still use them, only they might not know they are.
Even though they’ve fallen out of popular awareness, commonplace books are just as powerful a tool as they ever were. If you’re a writer they’re especially invaluable since they can help broaden your knowledge of different topics and give you a more engaging platform from which to compose than you might have otherwise had. And even if you’re not, keeping a commonplace book can help you to have more interesting conversations and deepen your own personal storehouse of wisdom. They can also boost your brain power and memory by helping you to make connections between disparate materials and synthesizing them into your own unique ideas – a skill that neuroscience tells us is being lost in our Internet Age.
Some have tried claiming that blogs or social media are the modern equivalents of commonplace books, but they’re really not. With a physical commonplace book you have essentially, an artifact of your own intellectual growth. It’s like making a mixtape of your mind. And it can make you feel like a wizard. Seriously. Try it.
Commonplace books also show us that many of the brilliant ideas of great thinkers and writers throughout history didn’t come out-of-the-blue, fully formed, but rather that they were a synthesis of ideas they were exposed to and made new or original. By keeping our own commonplace books today, we can do that, too. And with analog making the comeback that it is, it’s time that the world got reminded of the incredible intellectual technology that is the commonplace book. These are just some of the reasons that commonplace books have earned their place on the shelf of Totally Awesome History.
Blair, Ann. “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1992), pp. 541-551
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. WW Norton & Company, 2010.
Cave, Terence. “Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structure of Renaissance Thought.” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Summer 1997), pp.337-340
Dacome, Lucia. “Noting the Mind: Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 65, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), pp. 603-625
Katsev, Richard D. In the Country of Books: Commonplace Books and Other Readings. Matador, 2009.
Price, Gayle B. “A Case for a Modern Commonplace Book.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 31, No. 2, Recent Work in Rhetoric: Discourse Theory, Invention, Arrangement, Style, Audience (May, 1980), pp. 175-182