commonplace book

My question for you is, have you ever heard of a commonplace book? I just learned about it this past year and fell in love with the idea. The tradition of the commonplace book dates back as far as the 2nd century A.D. and its name originates from the latin term “locus communis,” which means a general or common topic. As the name implies, the contents of the book are usually organized under overarching topics or universal subjects (I like to organize it by the author or title of my current read).  I found the journal pictured above when I was in Oxford, England. Someone took an antique book cover and filled it with blank paper–a brilliant idea! I’m hoping to learn how to book bind on my own at some point. 

(Above: Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, a novel about William Wallace. Below: Howards End by E.M. Forster, one of the most beautifully written stories).

According to tradition, the commonplace book is the avid reader and thinker’s storehouse for a range of miscellany: witty proverbs, important quotes, personal commentary on readings, prayers, poems, prose, even recipes and medical notes.

Some rather noteworthy characters have upheld this creative craft including Marcus Aurelius, Erasmus, E.M Forster (I was so excited to discover this because he is one of my favorite British novelists) and even Ronald Reagan. Rather than simply charging through the pages of a book and consuming the material at a breakneck speed, the practice of the commonplace book encourages the habit of musing over that particularly masterful sentence you stumbled over or the large ideas of a novel as whole. Perhaps the commonplace book is one little way to move against the tide of a panicked, time-robbed world and spend more minutes over the material we’re trying to contain within us.  

Indeed, for those who have an artistic bent, it provides one more excuse and canvas for little drawings and illustrations. I found this photograph of an illuminated commonplace book which puts any 21st century attempts to utter shame: 

Find a spare journal and start one. It is immensely rewarding to return to little notes and quotes I’ve written down. It suddenly thrusts me back into the complex world of a novel that I hadn’t realized I missed so much until everything comes rushing back: the characters, the particular drama, the visuals, the voices, the scents and the aesthetic. Take up your commonplace book–you will be in good company. 

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mamie gillian

copyright 2024