I recently learnt what commonplace books are and realised that I have been keeping them since I was a teenager. I’d always assumed that the notebooks I filled were just aborted journals, filled with random pieces of text. But no, they are a thing with a long history of famous scribbles, doodles, random thoughts and profundities.
Commonplace books are personal collections of words but they’re not quite journals. They are gradually filled with spontaneous inspiration and as such are rarely on a single topic. Historically, people kept them to jot down ideas: Leonardo da Vinci’s called his a ‘… collection without order, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later…’
For centuries, people have filled theirs with quotes, sudden flashes of inspiration, recipes, sayings and proverbs, funny observations. Lewis Carroll and John Milton’s are famous examples. Thomas Jefferson kept one for his legal ideas and one for his literary and philosophical readings.
Commonplace books can be filled with whatever piques your interest. They may have fallen out of fashion with the arrival of the internet and online documents (think note-taking apps like Evernote and OneNote) but I still use them for many reasons. One big reason is copying sentences or paragraphs from novels that I read (I filled an entire one with extracts from Proust); there is something about the physical action of copying a perfect passage using pen and paper that makes it more profound and memorable.
I also fill my commonplace books with quotes, titles for poems or songs, fragments of poems that pop into my head and need to be recorded and hopefully used later, observations I’ve made, general stuff that’s on my mind but too short to want to flesh out into a journal entry.
Now I think about it, they’re a little bit like a Twitter account made physical, where instead of retweeting something interesting you found, you pull out your dog-eared commonplace book and scribble it down. Which leads to an important point about commonplace books—tweets may disappear down a timeline, never to be seen again, but whatever goes in your notebook needs to be reviewed later and trawled for good ideas.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop filling in my commonplace books, especially now I know what they’re called…