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Incarnational Memory and the Commonplace Book

Medieval authors consistently amaze with their apparent ability to remember everything. How did Boethius compose The Consolation of Philosophy from a prison cell? He fills his work with classical allusions and direct quotations all without his library, Wikipedia, or the internet. Boethius, while brilliant, is by no means an exception. Dante could reportedly recite the entire Aeneid. Yet medievals also had various helps for their memory; one of their greatest was the commonplace book.

Early in recorded history, the Greeks developed the koinoi topoi or “common locations.” These were lines of argument or compilations of facts and anecdotes that a speaker could draw upon in the assembly. When Demosthenes persuaded Athens to attack Macedon, he may have drawn from his collection of examples of similar situations. Aristotle continued to expand upon these common topics and their importance to the budding orator in his Rhetoric. Today, our word “commonplace” is essentially a direct translation of the Greek’s koinoi topoi.

A commonplace book is a method for recording thoughts, quotations, anecdotes, or other items into a single repository for use or reflection. Some keepers of such books provide annotations or reflections on their selections, while others simply record the quotation—even without attribution! Some choose to organize their books by topic while others simply fill in quotes from front to back.

Throughout most of human history, influential figures have kept some form of a commonplace book. Among the ancients, Seneca recommended such a book for “mingling various nectars” to create a “single sweet substance.” The Meditations is the journal and commonplace book of Marcus Aurelius. Notable medieval era figures who kept a commonplace book include Desiderius Erasmus, Francis Bacon, and Leonardo Da Vinci. Bacon claimed,

“There can hardly be anything more useful … than a sound help for the memory; that is a good and learned Digest of Common Places. … I hold diligence and labour in the entry of common places to be a matter of great use and support in studying.”

Thomas Jefferson kept commonplace books, and John Locke devised a unique method of organizing his own. John Milton’s and W. H. Auden’s books are both published. Ronald Reagan kept boxes of index cards filled with information, quotations, and examples for his speeches. Commonplace books are a longstanding tradition among speakers and orators but are also useful to anyone seeking to improve their memory. For this reason, Jonathan Swift proposed such books were indispensable to the poet:

“A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that ‘great wits have short memories;’ and whereas, on the other hand, poets being liars by profession, ought to have good memories. To reconcile these, a book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory; or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation.”

Commonplace books aid the memory in a number of ways. They force the reader to slow down and dwell on the reading. When on the lookout for pleasing, insightful, or useful quotations, he must ponder and weigh every word. The mind, eye, and ear tune themselves to beauty and learn to heed her call.

The process of writing conforms the body to the thoughts of the author. What was it like for Shakespeare to compose his sonnets? By copying them into a book, one imitates the motions of his quill. Writing incarnates the ideas in your own hand onto the page. By tracing the letters with your own fingers, the sentences are inscribed upon your mind more surely than if they had been briefly scanned. More than just placing quotations into a book, the practice of commonplacing stocks the soul with good things. Even if the book is never consulted again, there is still the mark upon the soul from seeing, stopping, reflecting, and writing.

After having collected a number of quotations, especially if one’s book is not organized, the serendipity of discovery begins to occur. By seeing two quotes placed together on the page, one can establish relationships that would not otherwise exist. The end product of filling a commonplace book is a network of connections, remembrances, and quotations. Like a hand-printed and bound incarnation of a mind, the commonplace book has a life of its own. It contains the scribe’s character as it documents his internal conversation between many authors.

How should one keep a commonplace book? There are probably as many methods as there are people. When considering digital vs. analog, remember that the slow and bodily nature of handwriting brings its own rewards. Nevertheless, Microsoft OneNote, Apple Notes, Google Keep, Bear, Evernote, Ulysses, or a file folder structure are viable methods for recording quotations. The greatest advantage of digital commonplace books is their searchability. It is much easier to find an exact quotation by search or tag than hunting through 1000 index cards.

But, as a card-carrying member of the tech-savvy luddites, I still prefer paper. When using an analog method, there are two main options: index cards or notebooks. Index cards have the advantage of being easily reorganized, selected, sorted, and arranged, while a bound volume is fixed the moment a page is filled. When writing in a journal, one can try to organize by topic, but it can be difficult to settle on categories before writing.

No matter which option you choose, there are several key principles. First, read widely. Second, always be on the lookout for beautiful, wise, helpful, or interesting quotations. Every source you consult should be interrogated for selections. Third, don’t forget to keep up with recording thoughts. It can be easy to let them pile up, which makes it more difficult to continue the practice. Fourth, don’t worry about “using” everything in your commonplace book. You are shaping a habit. It is more important to train your eye and form your soul than to “use” every quotation.

With our instant access to Google, memory seems like a skill of the past. Yet we are only what we remember. That inner chamber of our mind where we communicate with our soul may be as richly furnished as a king’s palace or impoverished and bare. Our ability to think and act virtuously depends upon the furniture of our memory. Tolkien commented that everything he wrote sprang from the leaf-mold of his mind. The commonplace book is a time-tested method of forming our minds so that we may live well. Get mulching.

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