I wrote this post the week after New Year’s with the intention to publish a cool, philosophical examination of the commonplace book. But like most New Year’s resolutions, things didn’t work I planned. I have been thinking about this topic for a while, but I have put it off. I finally started cleaning out my room this week after I got home from college. I decided that it was time to do some spring cleaning. I’m living at home after college, and I have an average sized room, but I have a ton of books and notebooks and not much space to store them. My closet and bookshelf and desks are so full. I started going through college papers and notebooks, and I realized that I don’t need to save all of these.
But it is a bit sad to throw them away. I have a fear of forgetting everything that I learned in college, and I think from a practical standpoint, students pay a ridiculous amount of money to attend university and to sit in a classroom and take notes. Why should I throw these notes out? They’re worth so many paychecks.
I realized that I’m too much of a saver. I don’t have room for every single worksheet or notebook in my room. Many of them I will never look at again. I mean, there is Google. I can research Finite Math and review Chemistry, but what about the humanities? What if I forget all these writers and philosophers that I read and loved?
So, that is why I’m returning to a commonplace book. It is a place where you can keep all the meaningful things you learned in one place.
That is why–after I graduated college–I decided that I should get back to working on a commonplace book that I haven’t touched since my fall semester of college.
What is a Commonplace Book?
So, if you haven’t heard of a commonplace book, you might be very confused right now. I first heard of a commonplace book not from the internet, but from a philosophy professor that I had at Grove City College. It was even a grade for my philosophy 101 class. All we had to do was write 45 quotes from the works we read in class into a notebook. Sounds simple enough and an easy way to get points, doesn’t it?
During the course of a semester, we wrote a few quotes from every reading into the notebook. It wasn’t too hard of an assignment, and I was grateful that my professor chose this project for a few reasons. Keeping one of these books is an easy way to improve your grade in Philosophy 101, and it is also an easy way to grow a little bit wiser every day.
So, how does one create a commonplace book exactly? And why do I plan to spend my time writing quotes that I find in books? If that sounds boring, like it did to me at first, I’ll ask you this:
Have you ever read a great quote in a book that you never wanted to forget. Have you ever read a quote that you loved not for the beauty of the words, but for the message? The message was so powerful, you wanted to remember it and not just keep it as a pretty wall poster. The words you write in a commonplace book can provide guidance, wisdom, and advice for a difficult time or be read as an everyday reminder. There have been many passages throughout my reading that I have wished to keep with me.
For years, I did not know how to save these quotes and remember them. I have collected phrases in journals, made Pinterest boards, and saved posts I’ve loved on Instagram. I remember in high school, I loved copying my favorite scenes and quotes from books into my journal. I’ve been collecting words, sharing them, and eventually losing them my entire life.
When I started college, I took notes in class and added stars to quotes in books. I was an English major. I marked them down because my professor told me to and because I would likely be tested on them. But I also knew I wanted to come back to them someday. Looking back, I’ve realized that after tests and papers are done, I rarely return to those passages that meant so much to me at the time.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what I learned or that the quotes no longer applied to my life or understanding of the world, they did. But college can be stressful sometimes and life changes, and you forget to look back on the things you’ve learned.
Another problem I had with saving quotes was that I never knew how to sort them. In my philosophy class, it was pretty easy to find quotes to include in my notebook. We read many authors with words worth holding onto, looking to for guidance, and keeping with me. We studied the works of Plato, Dante, Aristotle, and Boethius.
I feel like I can go back and read them again and learn something new every time. My professors often said that good authors are worth rereading and learning from, time and time again. My one professor mentioned that he reread the Aristotle’s Ethics every year and reread Charles Dicken’s Christmas Carol every Advent. I would like to try that, I haven’t yet, but I feel like you could learn quite a bit from rereading the same book every season.
And just like I plan to reread great books, I also plan on returning to these commonplace entries in the future. I also like how I do not have to reread the entire book that day with a commonplace book. I can simply look back and find quotes on the topics that I’ve been thinking about. I could Google these quotes too, but I feel like I don’t remember things as much when I Google.
I discover something magical when I look back on my own words rewriting and remembering the words of another person. I honestly had no idea how beautiful the writings of these authors were until I read them. I kind of fell in love with the philosophers, some of them, at least. We read about Aristotle’s definition of perfect friendship and Boethius’ words about how we can’t trust fortune or rely on external circumstances alone to make us happy.
Putting all the quotes together in commonplace book is a great way to find those topics and return to those quotes again and again. You can flip to a page in your commonplace book and find a specific topic and author.
Commonplace books are great at helping you remember these quotes and the impact they have had on society. If we look at topics like philosophy, politics, and religion, our culture has been influenced so much by the writers of the past. We are influenced by the past more than I realized. Martin Luther King Jr. for example, included several references to philosophers of the past.
In my classes at college, I was amazed how these writers were able to bring together the words of other authors and include their thoughts and ideas in their writings. How do you remember all of this? With a commonplace book, all of these quotes and phrases are kept together and organized. Writing them down and looking back on your commonplace book can help you remember it all.
What to Include in a Commonplace Book
Commonplace books entries don’t have to be from only philosophers and academics. You can include quotes from anywhere you find inspiring, novels, poetry, from the Bible, Koran, or any religious text, from a movie, tv show, or song. Even a street sign.
You can use quotes that you’ve heard in real life too. I learn so much about the world from family, friends, professors, and acquaintances. There is something about people that makes us want to quote each other. My sorority had/has a group chat where we quote each other and send it to the group. Most of these quotes are super funny, random, and out of context. But they can also be wise and insightful.
In the case of the commonplace book, I always do look at the context. So I do not misunderstand what the writer intended to say. Jeremiah 29:11, for example, is not meant for a 21th century reader but for the people of Israel. Shakespeare’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” is not nearly as deep as people think, and the term “greatness thrust upon them” is an innuendo. So be careful what you quote for inspiration.
For this book, I look for quotes that say something accurate about human nature or offer wisdom about how to live a good life.
Not all of your quotes have to be older either; they can be modern or from a song you heard last week. I would pay attention and look for things that you can learn. There are plenty of quotes that I find deep at the moment. James Arthur’s “Empty Space” was stuck in my head for at least a month. I’m not sure I’d include them or not. We sometimes find genius in unexpected places.
It is good to have authors from different time periods, cultures, and places. If you keep a broad scope, you will discover universal truths. You can find great wisdom from any era too. I like to keep learning about the world I live in–not just where I am.
Lately, I’ve noticed that when I read something I really want to remember, it gets lost–amongst all the other ideas swimming around my brain–like all the emails I read, the things people say in real life, my homework assignments, and articles I read online. It feels like too much. I also have a million notebooks, so most of my quotes were scattered into multiple journals. Then I lose it all. So when I learned about commonplace books, I figured I’d get all this together.
So, how do I even organize a commonplace book?
I have heard that there are different ways to organize them, but I figured I’d follow the meathod my professor described. It is easier, but if you find another method that you prefer, go for it. I organize mine alphabetically by the category of a quote. I make a page or so for every letter and the first vowel of that letter.
For example, I have a page for AA and the next page is AE. I vary the number of pages for each letter depending on how many words you can make for each letter and vowel. I make up the categories as I go along and put the categories on the pages corresponding to the alphabet. For example, let’s say that I’m writing down a quote about humility. I would go to the page where I wrote “HU” and would add the category humility under it with the words. All quotes that are about humility go there.
I write the quote under the category. Then I write the name of the author, the name of the work, and the page numbers under the quote. If I want to go back and read a whole section or reread the work I referenced, I can find it easily.
This is Your Commonplace book- don’t just listen to what I’m doing
You don’t have to structure your commonplace book as I did. A commonplace book is yours to write in and reference, so you should structure it the way it works for you. You could use a physical journal like I did or make a digital one on a word document. I personally love writing quotes down to remember them. You could even have multiple commonplace books. You could use one for quotes you like from books and another for words of wisdom. There are plenty of quotes that I love and want to read again that I wouldn’t call good advice. But it could be fun to keep track of them. I’m not sure if I’ll do this or not.
The main reason that my professor assigned this and why I’m writing this, is so that I can learn and grow in virtue and understanding. They can help me become a the best version of myself. They can help me grow as a person. In our internet age and how I noticed how quickly trends fade, I want something that I can hold onto. And becoming more like people you admire isn’t the impossible task that I once imagined it was.
Patience, honor, bravery, justice, benevolence, temperance, wit (Aristotle said wit was a virtue, I approve), and other virtues improve with practice. I fall into the problem of seeing virtue as abstract rather than concrete, and sometimes I find it easy to forget my moral code or forget that these are important.
Writing them down, and reading them, helps me remember. I can remember what is right. I can also read sections about wealth and remember that it does not matter the most. Money is the means to an end rather than the final end. I want to learn and remember how to be a good friend and care about others around me.
You certainly don’t need a commonplace book or to study philosophy or ethics to live a moral life, but I find writing down quotes and looking at them again is a helpful tool. When I feel stuck in my own thoughts, I can look at what people have to say about these things. Writing in a commonplace book is a great way to remember quotes and bits of information. There are also authors who I love reading and want to keep with me.
I would highly recommend starting a commonplace book if this sounds interesting. A commonplace book is a way to cultivate wisdom and a love and appreciation for words that lasts a lifetime. Making commonplacing a regular habit can be a helpful way to keep your favorite writers with you. It can motivate you to go back and reread your favorites and seek out new material. One of my worries about leaving college was forgetting how much I loved reading, especially philosophy and literature. If this sounds like something that sounds even remotely interested in, I would recommend giving it a try.
Tip: Whether you mark an entry every time as you read and discover something new, or spend seven minutes a day or three days a week commonplacing, building it into your life is the best way to ensure that it doesn’t end up under your closet. I know it has been a temptation of mine. Even if you forget about it for a while, you can always come back. There is no time limit or rules for your book.
This year, a few of my goals are maintain a schedule to cultivate good sleep, exercise, and eating habits; cultivate relationships and grow spiritually; and find a job after graduating in the spring. I wrote most of these goals down in January, and I’m still working on them. I also hope to grow in wisdom and learn about lives outside my own. So, commonplace book, here I go. I will not save every worksheet from Finite Math and Shakespeare, but I will keep this book with me.
I really hope that I will look back and remember old entries. I wonder what I will think when I look back at the quotes I wrote down when I was younger. I’d love to write more about this in the future once I get into collecting more quotes. Have you ever heard of or tried creating a commonplace book? If you’ve started or plan to start one, I would love to hear about it and plans for this year.
What do you think about a commonplace book? Are you a fan of spring cleaning? Do you tend to hold onto everything you receive or take a minimalist approach? Let me know in the comments!