In which we discuss the commonplace book, a time-tested means of saving information and learning it
Though I've slacked off a bit, I carried a Moleskin in my back pocket for decades, and they're lined up waiting on my bookshelf for my biographer to peruse. The little Moleskins served as notetaking dump, brief diary, and the occasional noodling session in the library. Not exactly like your commonplace book, but a reserve and repository of sorts. There is a long-standing tradition -- classically grounded, I think -- of the "florilegium" in which snippets of literature were committed to paper. Part of a tradition that fed learning rhetoric and writing, something like a stylistic playground between book covers. Handwriting, however messy, helps inscribe words in the mind, where they can bounce around and shape other thought.
I liked this post, Mark. Looking forward to others on the topic.
I used to be a big commonplace keeper (hence my substacks name, although that is mainly a play on the fact that I mostly write about quotidian, everyday subject matter).
It was an immensely useful part of my writing practice and the building up of my worldview (as well as being a memory aid) but I found I became a but too much of ab information hoarder. Kept up the practice for three or so years, have a couple of ring binders full of notes which mean, among other things, that I will never have to read a self improvement book again.
But I’m now done with generalised information accumulation now. It’s about output, journaling and actually putting the ideas to use. Perhaps in future years there will be a further accumulation phase. Who can say?
Great piece though, Mark. Extremely good.
Like Mark R Delong, I too carried Moleskins in purse or pocket and other too-many-to-count-now little journals--and I keep a large (7" buy 9") by my bed to record dreams. Lately I've taken to typing into my computer journal, dated by year, what I scribble. I'll be talking soon about what I like to call "image journals" in my "lessons" here on substack. Most definitely though I also scribble down quotes like this one from Flaubert: "I feel I'm liquifying like an old camembert." Love this post Mark Dykeman. xo Mary
This is quite interesting and dovetails with other things I've been reading (and experimenting with) in regards to writing, generating thoughts, and building a second brain. It's interesting that so many of us, as creatives/writers, keep these kinds of books without realizing it...which I suppose makes them a bit less useful since that lack of realization means we're not indexing or organizing as much as we ought.
Your approach also made me wonder: do we value or retain information less due to all the digital tools we now have to save it? It's so easy to bookmark something for later in a tool like Readwise and never return to it. We could be losing the opportunity to make interesting mental connections in the moment, since our brains are already focused on a topic at the time we save such articles. Or we could miss out on learning something new and making connections from things we save as we're making our way through and to other tasks.
There's something special about physically interacting with information, as you mentioned. It forces us to slow down, to take actions like printing and cutting and taping and annotating rather than mindlessly zipping through an article or listening to a podcast while our brains are half engaged with something else. That tactical element sets commonplace books apart from online bookmarking apps and second-brain software in a way I fear we could lose over time.
I like this concept and not to be apocalyptic, but you never know when digital will go the way of the dodo. It does seem like a bit of work, but worth it.
Interesting. My wife does a combination of journaling and commonplace bookmaking, it seems. As for me, I'm all digital, using OneNote for interesting minutiae.
Of course this makes me want to add a paper commonplace book to my arsenal 😅
Really enjoyed this post Mark! I came across an article about commonplace books about a couple of years ago. They were also selling gorgeous homemade commonplace books. I have kept bullet journals and these definitely reminded me of them. Truly believe as well that we have a different connection with our mind and emotions when we handwrite info. Great sharing of resources here as well! 🙌
Uh-oh...I'm a recovering scrapbooker, and reading your post has given me old urges (scissors, gluesticks, colored pens, and such.) The pros of commonplace books that you mention are undoubtedly true. My interests are varied, so I love learning new things. Writing stuff down has always helped me retain info. If only there were more hours in the day...(sigh)
I got really into Commonplace Books a while ago- I always copy down information in a notebook before eventually transferring it to an online doc to separate it further into categories, and be able to search for something I need.
I've been keeping commonplace books since I was a kid - and the Locke index method is something I teach my students to use when building either vocabulary books or keeping their own commonplace books. Great post!
Enjoyed this. I'm working on a piece that details a future information gap, where information from books fails to make it way onto videos and other devices Gen Z is emphasizing to get their info. This was a good read in preparation for that.
I'm honored that you stopped by, thank you! You make a great point, too - collection is great but even better when you use it to make something new.
Really thought-provoking post! I live my life by my bullet journal - it has everything I need. It’s not remotely artsy - just black pen and words. Everything I want to find again, even a tiny one-line note in a page, is indexed. It’s made such a difference. I’ve got quotes, ideas, to-dos, project notes, all sorts in there. I also have a passport-sized notebook for taking out on hikes or wherever - so useful for snaring ideas on the go. Tip: I turn it 90 degrees so my writing space (across a spread, but of course portrait not landscape) is almost as large as my A5 Leuchtturm - otherwise tiny books are just too tiny!
Looking forward to reading more about Zettelkasten - I’ve come across the concept but don’t know much about it.
I really like this. It's something I can see myself doing. More fun than journaling and I wouldn't feel obligated to do it daily. Thank you for the advice.