While attempting to come up with a title for my earlier post on Notetaking, I discovered a little-known fact. Our modern-day practice of notetaking and collecting those notes in books has historical origins.
According to the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program:
“In the most general sense, a commonplace book contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler. Commonplace books serve as a means of storing information, so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work.”
With origins in antiquity, they were called loci communes or “common places” and used to collect ideas and arguments used in various circumstances. In the Middle Ages florilegium or “gathering of flowers” were primarily for theological and religious-themed collections. During the Renaissance, students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study purposes.
By the seventeenth century, “commonplacing” was a recognized practice and taught in university settings. In 1706, John Lock published a book titled A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books offering new concepts in an arrangement of topics in commonplace books.
Commonplace books of famous authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy still survive in published form.
In time, the practice of commonplacing has died away except in the writing profession. Writers, authors and, I imagine, some journalists to keep notebooks to collect thoughts and ideas to be used later in their literary pursuits.
My very first acts of creating commonplace books (albeit unwittingly) were books of quotations. I used coil bound notebooks and wrote down quotes from books that I found profound and full of truth. I still have them on my shelf with my past journals.
For me it is a means to return to a book I have read but no longer own or have in my possession. I like to record something which I feel worthy of remembrance, a bit of truth to return to again and again.
I personally have more than one notebook going at a time. I carry one and another sits on my bedside table. On my laptop, I also have a file of collected sayings and bits of interesting information for later use and fiction fodder.
Do you have a commonplace book practice? Tell me about it in the comments section.
To close, I would like to share one of the gems from a notebook – or “commonplace book”- I have had for over thirty years. This is a quote from my favourite author, George MacDonald, it is taken from his novel The Landlady’s Master:
“We wrong those near us in being independent of them. God himself would not be happy without His son. We ought to lean on each other, giving and receiving — not as weaklings, but as lovers. Love is strength as well as need.”