The Sunday Salon: The Commonplace Book

Back in August, Eva posted about the way she reads; how she bookmarks, where she usually gets her books, and, most importantly, her commonplace book. If you, like me before I saw the post, don’t know what a commonplace book is, it’s essentially a literary scrapbook, ideally filled with quotes discovered in the course of your reading. Eva kept a commonplace book in high school, but had fallen off the wagon since. In its place, she now keeps a private commonplace blog. After some thought, I decided to start keeping a commonplace book of my own.

First, a little about the history of the commonplace book. The practice of keeping a commonplace books is centuries old, starting with Aristotle and continuing right on through the Enlightenment–many of the Founding Fathers kept commonplace books, and it was expected of upper-class, literate males. (The practice later spread to women, and may have been one of the inspirations for scrapbooking.) The commonplace book’s, well, commonplaceness stems from the fact that most people didn’t read in a linear fashion back then, as we almost universally do now. Used to picking and choosing from books already, a commonplace book allowed them to construct their own encyclopedias. But the material found in a commonplace book wasn’t solely gleaned from reading; it ranged from class notes to recipes to prayers. After the Enlightenment, however, the popularity of the commonplace book waned, as literacy spread farther and farther from the elite class and books became more widely available. There are those who argue that blogs are the “new” commonplace book, but that’s more figurative than literal, at least in my eyes.

The reason I started reviewing books (okay, one of the reasons) was so I could keep better track of the books I read and record my thoughts and impressions. Having a commonplace book helps me keep further track; what struck me, what inspired me, what made me laugh. And to have a place to record all the wonderful language and things I come across while I read is just fantastic; like a commonplace book of old, I’ve got everything from scientific facts I stumble across reading nonfiction to particularly good jokes to moments that wrench my heart. I even have quotes from fantastically written blog posts–all my reading is eligible! One of the best parts about keeping it is reviewing it and reliving, in part, a good book. (Or, if it was a bad book, enjoying the very few good parts it had.) Of course, now I have to travel with scores of Post-It notes to mark those particular chapters, but it’s completely worth it once I put in into my commonplace book. Whereas Eva keeps a private blog, I keep an .rtf file on my computer; it’s searchable and compact–here’s a screenshot of it.

If you’re even mildly interested in starting one, I highly recommend it–as you can see, it doesn’t have to be fancy!

My reading has been going pretty well, between class and other concerns. I finished Northanger Abbey on Friday, so now I can wholly devote myself to Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography, which is fascinating so far. I stopped by the library yesterday to pick up my hold for Sisters Red; I then realized I was running out of non-speculative titles to read after the three speculative works currently on my desk, so I picked up The Rose of Martinique. I’ve never really read a biography before, so that ought to be interesting!

Alli at Hist-Fic Chick is giving away a copy of The Jewel of St. Petersburg, which will end on October 4th, a copy of Come Again No More (I can’t find an end date for this one), and two copies of The Mistaken Wife, which will end on October 7th. is giving away a copy of There and Back Again, a companion to The Hobbit, until Thursday. Paper Crave is giving away a copy of Playing With Books until Tuesday. Celia from Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia is giving away a copy of Dangerous Neighbors, which will end on October 3rd. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

Would you keep a commonplace book?

12 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The Commonplace Book

  1. I would love to keep one, I think it must be really nice to have all these wonderful quotes in one place. But then, I’m always afraid it will take so much time to write them down. I know, it is silly. I want to give it a try, that is for sure. I’d love to have it in an actual book, even if it is not handy when it comes to searching and it takes a lot more time writing things down. I just feel like being romantic when it comes to such things.

  2. It’s an appealing thought. My husband bought me a little book to keep track of my reading before I started my blog but I’ve sort of left it. I should get back to it. I had a lot of fun with it.

  3. I really like this idea, but I can’t settle on a format. I definitely prefer to write by hand, not type, something so personal. I like that a handwritten account would have the same feel as a book, that I could thumb through it instead of scrolling. But I keep starting different blank books and then abandoning them. I can’t settle on a format, on what to include. I really like things to be standardized, so when I don’t like a format I’ve tried, I kind of lose steam for a while. Then I choose a new format and start again!

    I’ve started reading with an index card as a bookmark and a pen nearby, so that I can note pages that elicit strong reactions or quotes that catch my attention. I’m hoping these brief records will help me with my blog reviews, but also that they might translate into a sort of commonplace book, somehow. Still working on it.

    Great post — you’ve given me lots to think about!

  4. This sounds like a really neat idea, but the problem would be the format for me. If it was in a notebook I’d inevitably lose it or damage it beyond repair (because I have a way with notebooks). However, keeping it on just one computer would be really a pain, since sometimes I’m around one and not the other. However, I wonder if making a Google Doc wouldn’t be something I could do… Then again, I really like the feel of a notebook. Maybe if I get a nice one I’ll treat it better than I do the cheap-o ones. 😛

    An interesting idea! I’ll have to think on it…

  5. I’m in love with my commonplace book. I don’t write it in all that much – I have to like a quotation A LOT before I will bother copying it down into my commonplace book – but I love the things I have written in it (mostly). It’s a good record of my reading brain over the years. Sometimes I will flip back through it and be disgusted with myself for thinking something was profound or funny that was actually very trite. But at least I feel like I’ve grown up since then. :p

Your Thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s