Commonplace books

A formerly well-known practice in times past (and still well known now, in certain circles) was the practice of keeping a commonplace book. These books, which are not to be confused with journals, contained bits and pieces of phrases, sayings, ideas, speeches, formulae, even recipes, each according to the various interests of its owner. They were particularly common to writers, a repository for thoughts and phrases they wished to use in their own works. For readers such as myself, commonplace books are invaluable for helping to remember things I’ve read, quotes I especially liked, and concepts I wish to explore in more depth. 

I first learned about commonplace books in a seminar I took on Elizabethan and Early Modern poetry. Mostly we read The Faerie Queene. Ugh. I know I should like it but I can’t even. Anyway. Being a bit of a pen and paper addict at the time, I was immediately intrigued and decided I needed to start one of my own. I got myself a pretty little blank journal and went to town with it. It turned out to be really helpful when studying literature that I didn’t care for, because I could jot down the important bits and skim over the rest, handy for writing 20+ page papers on literature I didn’t really like! I’d never really done any kind of note-taking or real prep work for writing papers before, opting instead for a “start in the middle and work my way out” approach. It had worked for me up to the point I had to write a 20 page paper on literature I didn’t care for. Besides, using a commonplace book was a fun way to practice different handwriting in it. My normal handwriting looks like it should belong to a mass murderer. I am surprisingly ok with that. ANYWAY.

For modern readers and writers, commonplace books might be more easily kept on a computer or cloud drive, and is indeed where mine now lives. But I still get inspired to write new things when I go back through my entries. It’s fun also to see what I used to find intriguing and what I’ve got over since I started it. It seems like a good tool to reinstate for modern readers and writers, and I wish more people kept their own commonplace book in some form. I would give my eyeteeth to see what Neil Gaiman’s might look like!

Another version of a commonplace book is called a junk journal or smash journal. While most people seem to view these as a form of a scrapbook, to me it seems an ideal way to incorporate many forms of media into a visually beautiful commonplace book. While I just recently discovered this term, it turns out I have actually created a junk journal before, and had a ball doing it! I tend to create them when I go on big trips, such as to England. There is something entirely satisfying about rubbing dirt in the pages and making a rubbing from the stones of Glastonbury Tor, or dipping a corner into the River Cam, or letting it sit out and catch a little London drizzle. I try different styles of handwriting, I paste in various clippings from newspapers and magazines I gather on the trip, tickets from the plane and trains, even stickers from fruit and my beloved Belvoir elderflower presse, and a few chestnuts thieved from beneath a huge tree at Anne Boleyn’s childhood home of Hever Castle. I love my junk journal, and I didn’t even know I was keeping one.

I have since moved my handwritten commonplace book over to digital format. It grew too unwieldy to maintain in written format, which makes me kind of sad to think about. When I’m retired, perhaps I will do both. But my digital version has more images in it and is generally easier for me to maintain now in a busy modern life. Below are some of my favorite snippets from my own commonplace book. What are some of yours?

* It is not snobbish to harbor grave doubts about somebody who seems uninterested in reading for pleasure or recreation…

~Christopher Hitchens in “Speak Up!” Vanity Fair, 10/20/08

*It is possible to commit no mistakes—and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.

~Star Trek: TNG, “Peak Performance”

* Sometimes you wake up. Sometimes the fall kills you. And sometimes, when you fall, you fly.

~Neil Gaiman, The Sandman.

*There is not sufficient love and goodness in the world to permit us to give it away to imaginary beings.


* When the Day of Judgment dawns and people, great and small, come marching in to receive their heavenly rewards, the Almighty will gaze upon the mere bookworms and say to Peter, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them. They have loved reading.”

~Virginia Woolf


3 thoughts on “Commonplace books

  1. I’m pretty sure a handwritten commonbook would be the way I would have to go. I can’t even find my own bookmarks and highlights on my kindle. I’d never be able to retrieve anything and my items of interest would vanish in the cloud.


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