The Commonplace Book

I am not given easily to new ideas. I prefer old ideas that still have application. Sometimes I stumble upon something and then learn that it has been around for ages. Such is the case with the commonplace book.

I bought my first commonplace book, otherwise known as my handy-dandy notebook, about 5 years ago. I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but the potential of it grabbed my attention. I first started using it to journal, reacting to my experiences as a new MBA student. A few pages in, some sermon notes appear (from listening, not preaching) and then the first quote from a book I was reading.

This and subsequent small notebooks became a catch-all. They contain everything from grocery lists and lists of birds seen to quotes and journal bits. I received a bigger A5 size notebook for my birthday and it became more of a true commonplace book, but even at that, I tend to bend the genre. As I page through it, I find much copied into it, but also notes for sermons and for a lenten teaching series I gave.

For a purist, a commonplace book is a place where one records bits from reading. It can be organized according to topic, but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve found that having both my A6 and A5 notebooks has helped keep my A5 a bit “cleaner” from some of the day-to-day notes and to-dos.

I find the value in the practice of keeping a commonplace book in four main ways.

First, the act of writing out something significant helps it stick in my mind. I no longer underline in my Bible, but I do jot down verses that seem to especially stick out in my book. It is interesting how some of the same verses pop up repeatedly across my books.

Second, they are a place to capture thoughts brought about by reading or other experiences. It’s not quite a journal, because I am not merely chronicling my thoughts, but often trying to synthesize thoughts from multiple sources. My ideas on planning for spiritual growth grew out of such writing.

Third, as I was reminded this week, they can be a good place to mine ideas for projects. I am preparing for an upcoming presentation and as I was flipping through my current book, I highlighted several passages that applied to the topic I’m developing.

Fourth, they provide a bit of personal history. I can look back and see what writers I read when. I can see when I first discovered certain key ideas. Since I date my entries, I can correlate them to other events in my life.

If you decide to start using a commonplace book, I have one bit of advice. Record the author, title, and page number of every quote so that if you want to use it in the future, you can properly give credit. I wasted much time trying to track quotes down before I started this habit.


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