How to Commonplace

Commplacing has been an important addition to my self-education and my reading life. I’d heard of the concept of commonplacing several years before I started the practice myself. I even started a commonplace book once or twice, but I never developed the habit of commonplacing so it wouldn’t take long for my commonplace journal to be back on a shelf collecting dust.

In 2017, however, I started a commonplace journal, and I’ve kept it up for just over three years. I’ve seen the benefits of commonplacing, and I’ve seen how much it adds to my literary life.

“You must be content to know that there are rooms in the fairy palace of Literature into which you cannot enter yet. But every year, as your knowledge grows, you will find that new keys have been put into your hands with which you may unlock the doors which are now closed. And with every door that you unlock, you will become aware of others and still others that are yet shut fast, until at last you learn with something of pain, that the great palace of our Literature is so vast that you can never hope to open all the doors even to peep inside.” — English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall

What is a Commonplace Journal?
The most basic commonplace journal is a notebook in which a reader writes down the quotes she comes across that she most likes. It’s a journal that chronicles the inward life of a reader as she explores a wide variety of books and topics. It’s a history of what a reader chooses to educate herself on.

As a reader who commonplaces, my journal is a place where I record the most thought-provoking quotes I come across in my reading. The pages of my commonplace journal show my evolutionary growth as a reader and as a person. In the three years that I’ve been commonplacing, I can see the wide variety of subjects that have captured my interest. I see quotes that remind me of the interests that I have spent time thinking about over the past few years.

Strictly speaking a commonplace journal is simply a collection of quotes. It’s not a place where you record your thoughts, questions, and responses to what you’re reading. A reading journal may be an important part of your reading life as well, but it’s different from a commonplace journal. (Of course, there are no strict rules about journaling, and it’s most important to make your commonplace and reading journals work for you.)

“There are libraries, too–such libraries! containing every book of delight that ever was written. When anybody sits down to read, the author who made the book comes and leans over his shoulder and talks to him.” — Ourselves by Charlotte Mason

How Do I Commonplace?

My simple Commonplace Journal

My advice is: start simple. My commonplace journal is a random journal I had lying around my house three years ago. It isn’t as pretty or nice as I would have picked if I had known commonplacing was a habit I would continue. Three years ago I didn’t want to spend too much money on a journal when I wasn’t sure commonplacing would truly become a habit.

The point is that any journal will work. Just pick up a journal and start on the first page with writing down a quote. Then skip a line and write down the next quote. Keep it simple.

Once commonplacing becomes a habit, you can change up the practice and make your pages prettier or develop an indexing system so it’s easy to find quotes. But in the beginning keep it simple. Three years into this, my commonplace journal is still very simple. I like it this way.

“Even if hope is just a low ember at night, in the morning you can still start a fire.” — On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness by Andrew Peterson

What is the Benefit of Commonplacing?

First, I found that I’m more likely to remember the main points of a book. A quick review of my commonplace book reminds me of the most important aspects of a book. As I read through the quotes, I get a quick “refresher” course on what I’ve read. In this way, it keeps the topics and contents of the books I’ve read in my mind more frequently.

Secondly, I use the commonplace quotes as fodder for writing. Looking through my commonplace journal gives me ideas to write. For several years, I wrote on Instagram, and now I blog and write a monthly literary newsletter. My commonplace journal reminds me of why I write . . . talking about books makes me happy. It gives my brain so much to think about and to mull over.

Third, I make connections between different books. Reading through my commonplace journal allows me to see how books are connected. As I record a new quote, I might take a moment to read through past quotes. Reviewing the highlights of previous books sometimes allows me to see similarities or connections of thoughts that I would otherwise have missed.

Fourth, I slow down in my reading. Ultimately commonplace journaling is one of the best ways I’ve found to slow down and embrace my reading. As I’m reading, I use book darts to mark the quotes I find most interesting. (Book darts are one of the best “extras” for commonplace journaling!) Once I’m done reading, I go back and read through the quotes again. If I still find the quote thought-provoking, I write it down in my commonplace journal. Taking the time to write the quote down slows my brain down to interact more with the content of the book I’m reading.

“Each book and author contribute to the Great Conversation, which is humanity’s never-ending search for wisdom. When we narrate what we read, we join that conversation in our own small way. We become partakers in that universal quest for wisdom that has been going on for as long as people have been thinking and speaking, and which will not end while the world lasts.” — Know and Tell by Karen Glass

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