Keeping a Commonplace Book
Do you ever have those days where you just feel like it’s too hard? You can’t think of a reason to be motivated, to keep going. You can’t remember why you started this? And you lack the will or energy to go on?
I hope I’m not the only one.
Well, there’s something I have that, if I reach for, can help me find my footing again. Within moments, my thoughts will return to normal. My joy, my reason, and my motivation will be restored. It’s like my own personal life coach, designed just for me and my unique needs.
What is this thing? It’s my book of commonplace. I have two actually…more about that later…right now, I want to talk about the power of a book of commonplace and why you should have one. And why your children, also, should be keeping one.
In this article, I will share:
What a commonplace book is
The history of these treasured keepsakes
The benefits to you and your children
How to keep one, and
What not to do when encouraging your children to keep one
WHAT ON EARTH IS A BOOK OF COMMONPLACE?
Imagine if every thought-provoking quote, verse, observation, or anecdote that impacted you was always at your fingertips. If all the great ideas you encountered were collected in one place. Then, in those moments of world-weariness or dissatisfaction, you would have easy access to inspiration, to truth, to hope. You’d have the quick ability to recenter your thoughts.
You would have a free copy of a personal coaching book written only for you. A uniquely designed self-help living manuscript that you wrote when you were feeling inspired.
And what if, as you took the time to write down these worthy ideas, you developed stronger thinking and more powerful writing skills? What if all that was available to your children—a simple, yet effective way to build character and strengthen writing skills?
That’s what keeping a commonplace book is all about.
We all know the value of copywork in the formation of excellent penmanship, sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and writing. We also know that using copywork curriculum can ground a child in strong character and Biblical thinking.
Yet, a commonplace book is kept long after copywork is practiced. It’s kept for a lifetime. And it’s even more powerful than copywork because it’s personal. It’s a collection of your own choosing—words that validated, inspired, moved, motivated, and impacted your thinking.
A commonplace book is a collection of your personal inspiration. It is a living book, one you created from years of encounters with the beautiful thoughts and wisdom that made your heart beat and mind bloom.
And that’s why you and your children should keep one.
Charlotte Mason tells us,
“Children should transcribe favourite passages. A certain sense of possession and delight may be added to this exercise if children are allowed to choose for transcription their favourite verse in one poem and another.”
A book of commonplace cultivates your children’s character because it’s a collection of the intimate and influential encounters with truth that they’ve experienced while reading. And through the act of writing out the powerful thoughts they’ve met, your children will develop deeper thinking on various subjects. Logical and intelligent ideas will be firmly implanted as they create this record of their foundational beliefs.
And this, the ability to think well, translates to superior writing skills.
Most people rely on the basic essay for writing instruction, but the commonplace book is an easier and far superior method for producing strong writing. It’s also more engaging. Even reluctant writers are eager to put to pen ideas that make strong impressions on them.
Amos Alcott, the acclaimed 18th century New England educator, held firmly that keeping a book of commonplace was the key to great authorship. He believed every student should begin one as soon as he was able.
At ten years old, John Quincy Adams penned this note to his father: “Sir, if you will please be so good as to favor me with a blank book, I will transcribe the most remarkable passages I meet with in my reading, which will serve to fix them upon my mind.”
HISTORY OF COMMONPLACE BOOKS
Sometimes, in reference to choosing passages and quotes to transcribe, Charlotte Mason refers to this as a Year Book, or a Book of Mottoes. For most of human history, it’s been called a Book of Commonplace.
This idea of keeping a special book of sayings has been the work of scholars from ancient Greece to today. The Greeks named it tópos koinós. Tópos means a place, and koinós means common, shared, or mutual—so a place where common knowledge, wisdom, and truth was kept to be remembered. A book of commonplace.
The Romans required these books for the learning of Rhetoric. In the first century AD, Seneca the Younger advised learners to collect commonplace ideas like a bee collects pollen.
And like a bee, to turn these thoughts into their own honey-like words.
Though hundreds of learned scholars’ commonplace books have been published, the earliest still in publication today is from Marcus Aurelius, a second century Roman emperor. In his book now called Meditations, we read such things as: “Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust or lose your sense of shame or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill-will or hypocrisy or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.”
In the Middle Ages, keeping a commonplace book, called commonplacing, was quite common. The Italians called it a zibaldone (hodgepodge book). Leonardo da Vinci called his “A collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they treat.”
By the 1600’s, commonplacing had become a standard practice formally taught in colleges such as, Oxford. John Locke, the enlightenment era philosopher, created a whole system for organizing a commonplace book, called A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books.
Similar to a word-based scrapbook, commonplacing has been valuable to countless great thinkers over the years.
Most every president of the United States is known have to have kept a commonplace book, even as recently as Ronald Reagan. Thomas Jefferson kept one for legal ideas and another for literary ones. Scientist, Carl Linnaeus, used commonplacing to invent and arrange the nomenclature of his Systema Naturae (the classification system we still use today). Authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf were avid keepers of commonplaces.
Virginia Woolf, wrote, “Take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. Most of the pages are blank, it is true; but at the beginning we shall find a certain number very beautifully covered with a strikingly legible hand-writing. Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.”
BENEFITS OF COMMONPLACING
Revisit, rediscover, and retain the good things
In our age, we come across so many fascinating ideas, tidbits, figures of speech, inspirational passages, truisms, and quotes. But how many do we remember? Having a commonplace book enables you to return to these morsels, remember them, and rediscover the inspiration they originally gave you.
Develop the habits of focus, attention, thinking, and remembering
So many amazing habits that are hard to train are developed when one actively keeps a book of commonplace. When you regularly stop and consider something you’ve read, you are developing the habit of focused attention and the habit of thinking. As you ponder the significance, you begin to make connections. You begin to develop your intellect and your character. As you write it down, you are continuing to grow the habit of attention and developing the skill of remembering. Every time you reread the passages you penned, the habits are reinforced.
Escalate thinking and writing skills
By copying well-written thoughts, we begin to think in ways that are more eloquent. And, as the great Roman scholars suggested, we can take those thoughts and make our own honey with words, verbally and in writing.
Regain your footing
Sometimes we’re faced with difficulties that challenge our belief system or understanding of the world. As you resolve these conflicts, you can find firmer footing by rereading the thoughts that inspired you and using them as a guide when examining your worldview. Without a commonplace book, you may lose the opportunity to fit new truths into the framework of your beliefs.
When life feels confusing or unstable, or your beliefs are challenged, a book of commonplace will recenter your thinking.
Build and solidify strong character
Why were there so many men of strong character in America’s past? Why was wisdom and right thinking the norm, not the exception? Building character happens through being exposed to, admiring, and wishing to emulate the examples of others. These men and women recorded the wisdom and inspiring thoughts of their role models and the authors they encountered. This laid a firm foundation for their own character, and will do the same for us and our children.
HOW TO KEEP A BOOK OF COMMONPLACE
Everyone’s commonplace book will be as unique as the individual. But in each book is a common thread—a place where tidbits of data are stored: quotes, memes, anecdotes, observations, scripture or poetry, information gleaned from books, ideas spurred from connections made, conversations, movies, song lyrics, social posts, podcasts, life experiences, or anything else you want to revisit and remember.
My main suggestion is that you choose a book that will last. What you put in it will be up to you. I have two commonplace books, one for Scriptures that have moved me, and one for every other compelling thought, quote, or idea. Some may wish to keep one for homeschooling thoughts, and another for all other wisdom. Others may wish to keep everything—scripture, poetry, lists, quotes, wisdom, and instruction—collected in one commonplace.
As Virginia Woolf suggested, you can keep in your commonplace lists, not only of books you wish to read, but things you wish to accomplish and ideas you wish to pursue. It’s up to you. Your commonplace will reflect your personality. It can be as haphazard as Leonardo Da Vinci’s or as organized as Carl Linnaeus’. It matters not. What counts is that you’ve taken the time to commit what inspires you to paper, which in turn gives it the potential to be remembered forever.
DON’T MAKE IT A CHORE
When encouraging our children to keep a commonplace book, it’s important we don’t interfere by requiring a commonplace entry of our own choosing or timing. Commonplacing should never feel like, nor be made into a chore.
If a child seems struck by a passage, ask, “Is this something you want to remember? If so, for your writing today, you can copy that into your book of commonplace.” If the child wants to do it at that moment, let him. Let your children dictate when and what will be collected in their books. We should never say, “That’s really important to remember. You need to put that in your commonplace book.”
It should ever and always be a book of their very own. A book that reflects the thoughts and ideas that powerfully influenced their beliefs. Always, they should count it as a joy.
A treasure trove of inspiration they are delighted to collect.
KEEP YOUR OWN
As with all of our children’s education, it’s valuable and wise to model the joy of keeping a book of commonplace for our children. Let them see you get excited about adding to your book. If you are of the scrapbooking nature, add flourish to your book with scrapbooking supplies or colorful pens. If you are of the artist nature, add drawings. If not, a book of quotes written in ink is all that’s needed.
Make it your own joy to keep a book of commonplace, as the ancients and great thinkers of the past did, and your children will pick up on the practice.
And perhaps one day, if you’re feeling low, you will discover the power packed between the pages of your own commonplace book. It has all you need to restore that sense of peace and rightness, and remind you of the reason you started this journey. By starting your book of commonplace now, you’ll be storing up treasures of wisdom for when you need it most.