Why You Should Start a Commonplace Book
I wrote this post the week of New Year’s 2022. It was originally one of my New Year’s resolutions. But like most New Year’s resolutions, things did not work out like I planned. I have been thinking about working on a commonplace book 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 am living at home after college. My room is a mess, so I decided it could be a good idea to clean it out a bit. My biggest problem is that I have a ton of books and notebooks and not much space to store them.
My closet, bookshelf, and desks are so full. I am going through college papers and notebooks. I realize that I probably shouldn’t keep them all. I don’t have the room, and I probably won’t look at them as much I imagined that I would.
But it is a bit sad to throw them away. I am afraid of forgetting everything that I learned in college. I think keeping these notebooks and books is my way of remembering. And why should I throw them away? 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.
But I save too much. 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? I feel like by not keeping every single note that I took in class, I am missing out. What if I forget all these writers and philosophers that I read and love?
How do I hold onto my notes without keeping every English worksheet? How do I remember the specific quotes that I underlined in my textbooks. I needed an answer to these questions. So, I decided that place where you can keep all the meaningful things you learned in one place. The commonplace book, ta da. It figures that I would find a solution to my college concerns by remembering a project I did in a philosophy class.
What is a Commonplace Book?
So, if you haven’t heard of a commonplace book, you may be very confused. I first heard of a commonplace book not from the internet, but from a philosophy professor that I had at Grove City College. The book was a project for my philosophy 101 class. All we had to do was write 45 quotes from the works we read in class in a notebook. Sounds simple enough and an easy way to get points, right?
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? And why do I plan to spend my time writing quotes that I find in old 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 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 my favorite quotes. 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 life can be stressful and busy sometimes, 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 rereading over and over again. We studied the works of Plato, Dante, Aristotle, and Boethius.
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 Aristotle’s Ethics every year and reread Charles Dickens’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 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 a quote by an amazing writer. I honestly had no idea how beautiful the writings of these authors were until I read them. They always sounded like old, boring, dead people. I kind of fell in love with the philosophers. 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. Reading them made me think of things in ways I hadn’t before.
Putting all the quotes together in a 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. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. included several references to philosophers of the past in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail.
I was amazed how he was able to bring together the words of other authors and connect their ideas to his. How does anyone remember so many quotes?
That is why the commonplace book is a nice shortcut. All of these quotes and phrases are kept together and organized. You don’t have to memorize every point, at least not now.
What to Include in a Commonplace Book
Commonplace books entries don’t have to be from just philosophers and academics. You can include quotes from anywhere you find inspiring, novels, poetry, 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 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 look at the context. So I do not misunderstand what the writer intended to say. Jeremiah 29:11, “for you know the plans I have for you” for example, is not meant for a 21st 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 to the media you enjoy 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” has been stuck in my head for at least a month. Maybe I will put some of the lyrics in a commonplace book, or maybe not. We sometimes find genius in unexpected places.
It is good to have authors from different 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.
When I read something I 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 are scattered in multiple journals. Then I lose it all. So when I learned about commonplace books, I decided it was worth giving it a try.
So, how do I even organize a commonplace book?
I have heard that there are different ways to organize them, but I decided to follow the method my professor described. I find this method 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 categories as I go along and put 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. 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 a way it works for you. You could use a physical journal like I did or make a digital one on a word document. I 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. Not all quotes offer good advice, but I like them anyway and it could be fun to keep track of them.
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 the best version of myself. They can help me grow as a person. In our internet age, I have 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 thoughts or in the midst of a moral dilemma, I can look at what people say about these things. Writing in a commonplace book is a great way to remember quotes and bits of information. These people are 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, love and, appreciation for words that will last 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 to maintain a schedule to cultivate a 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 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!