Let me begin by explaining two things a commonplace book is not. A commonplace book is not a “quote book.” It is not your own version of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Many students and their educators are under this misimpression. They write down something they liked in Stephen Crane. Or they jot down things they think are clever or cute. They write “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” which they attribute to Albert Einstein (to little avail, as he did not say it). Or they hear a funny thing their friend said and write it down; or they take the words of their teachers out of context and write that down. As delightful as such quotations are, they do not make a commonplace book. Nor, I’ve found, do they last the student very long before they are forgotten and left mostly blank.
No more is a commonplace book a “miscellany,” a place where you collect random thoughts or where you keep your lecture notes or where you copy down difficult problems from the whiteboard. This is also a worthy enterprise and ought to be rehabilitated. But it is still not what we’re looking for.
What is a commonplace notebook, then? It is, in short, a notebook of loci communes, of common places. What does this mean?
It’s important to start by getting our heads around several strange concepts that ancients and Medievals had about how our minds worked. These I am taking from a wonderful book by Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory, which I highly recommend. These strange, ancient concepts can be summarized as follows:
- All thought is unoriginal. You’re always re-assembling pre-existing thoughts. Don’t even bother trying to come up with something new. Say goodbye to originality, ingenuity, and innovation.
- So, in order to do thinking, the mental tool you’ll use the most is your memory. After all, it is not important to generate thoughts, but rather to remember the ones that have already been said.
- Your memory is like a room. You put things in it to retrieve them later. But it only works if the room is clean and tidy. If your memory is disorganized, like the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter, what was the point of memorizing? You’ll never be able to find the thing you put in there later.
- Your memory is limited. But you can expand its capacity by creating a kind of “prosthetic” memory, a kind of “external hard drive.”
- A notebook is a prosthetic memory. It’s where you keep the things you need to remember.
- But you have to organize it. You do that by “putting” thoughts in certain “places.” These are the loci (places, in Latin).
- The loci are headings in your notebook, places that you commonly consult in order to generate thoughts on that topic. Things like “Death” or “What does it mean to be human?” or “Homer Talking about Food.”
- So, when you’re ready to speak or write about a thing, you go to that locus communis. You consult the heading.
- Although we said goodbye to them earlier, it turns out that originality, ingenuity, and innovation have returned. We blend pre-existing thoughts into something new, when we write and speak. It becomes something adapted for the present.
So, what’s different about the commonplace book? Headings. These are the loci communes.
Everything I’m saying was already said by Seneca, in his famous epistle “On Gathering Ideas.” (See? All thought is unoriginal.) He says it much more eloquently than I do. It’s not a coincidence that almost all ancient, Medieval and early modern students, when they started a new commonplace book, always began by copying Seneca’s quotation down first. Here it is:
We should follow…the examples of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in…. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then…we should so blend these several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origins, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from whence it came (1).
There’s no beehive without the cells, and there’s no commonplace book with headings. If you don’t have a place to put a thought such that you can retrieve it later, there’s no point in writing it down or remembering it. The problem is akin to a garage with every conceivable tool, but it’s disorganized. Ultimately each tool is useless because you can’t find it when you need it. Commonplace books are like pegboard: when you need the hammer, the hammer is there, hanging on its hook. Similarly, when you need to speak eloquently on a given topic, you have just the thought.
Erasmus gives us even more details about how to commonplace in his De copia. Once you’ve got your headings all figured out, and you’ve divided your commonplace book into sections under each heading, then “whatever you come across anywhere…you will immediately mark it down in its proper place.” This is, it turns out, how almost everybody read up until very recently: book, pencil, commonplace book.
And why go to all that trouble? Erasmus reminds us of why: there are always those kinds of people, he says, “who hold a great many things in their minds,” but when it comes to “speaking and writing they are wonderfully destitute and bare.” You know the type: socially awkward, has encyclopedic knowledge, but can’t ever find the right words when the time comes. Similarly, Giambattista Vico, writing in the early 18th century about Italian education abandoning the loci communes, complains about young students along exactly this line. When you throw a question at a student, says Vico, all they ever say is, “Give me some time to think!”
If we are to get practical, here are the steps to starting a commonplace book as I have suggested here. The most important decision, of course, will be the headings. For my own personal commonplace book, I orient my headings around writing projects I have. Someday I would like to write something on manners, someday something on astrology, someday something on plastic. I haven’t read enough to write any of these things, but while I am reading, anything that I find pertinent to any of those topics, I write it down under its heading. When it comes time to write, I have all of my texts there and I can, as Seneca says, blend the flavors into a delicious compound.
For teachers at classical schools, the headings may be more traditional: Aristotle’s common topics, traditional virtues, Biblical themes, central motifs or motivating questions behind the curriculum of a given year. Here I can recommend nothing more than research into the topics which organized commonplace books in the past.
The next step, as Erasmus says, is to distribute your headings across your notebook. Number your pages, assign a few folios to each topic, and make a table of contents. Of course, if you find that you run out of space on a given topic which has many more entries than another, you can always choose a few blank folios later on and assign them the “overflow” from that topic. Then you update your table of contents accordingly.
Then, as the marvel of Rotterdam says, start reading. Reading will take on a whole new meaning under this rubric. The commonplace notebook is nothing other than the logic of Proverbs 3:3 taken to its conclusion: “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart.” Plato expresses a similar urgency about remembering the truth: “to know,” he says in Phaedo, “is to acquire knowledge, keep it and not lose it. Do we not call the losing of knowledge forgetting?” It is no coincidence that the classical Christian tradition, grown up under the shadow of these ideas, has hit upon such an effective tool for remembering the truth.
1. Seneca, Epistulae Morales, LXXXIV.