Keeping a Commonplace Book, by Jen N.

These two quotes are the first entries in my commonplace book:

Culture around us is disintegrating, but you don’t have to be a part of it if you stand against the tide, and that is no small thing.- John Cusack

“To sum it all up, if you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.- Ray Bradbury

Commonplace books seem to be everywhere these days, and everyone has their own idea of what they should contain. Being a purist, I went in search of a definition. I’m usually not a fan of Wikipedia, but in this case I loved their definition.

From Wikipedia

“Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings. Scholars have expanded this usage to include any manuscript that collects material along a common theme by an individual.

“Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books…

Such books were essentially books filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.”

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works,”- Seneca

Clearly a commonplace book is not a “new” idea. Ronald Reagan kept his commonplace quotes on note cards. Any system that works for you is better than no system. Use a spiral notebook, a Moleskine, or even Pinterest. Write down words of wisdom, not just facts. Sir Alec Guinness also compiled entries in his own book that was discovered after his death: A Commonplace Book. Within the pages, I found parts of plays, quotations, and overheard conversations. Charlotte Mason fans will have read all about using the commonplace book in their home classrooms. Laurie Bestvater wrote a great book about note booking called: The Living Page: Keeping Notebooks with Charlotte Mason . I was inspired to begin note booking in earnest after reading it. I have never read a better explanation of the different notebooks that Charlotte Mason advocated in her schools.  In reference to  the commonplace book she says,

” It generally consists of other people’s writing. Like a graduated copybook, it is begun in earnest by the student at middle or high school age when his learning is becoming more and more under his own direction and, ideally, used throughout life.

I feel strongly that a commonplace book should not be a planner, datebook, or any other record keeping system besides that of recording great thoughts that you have read or heard. There seems to be so little room for inspiration in our lives. Certainly it is hard to find while in the midst of raising little people. I feel like a commonplace book is almost like creating your own retreat. When you have time you fill it’s pages with words that mean something to you. Later when you are feeling either discouraged or down- those words remind you why you are doing what you do. It gives you the strength to keep filling the bucket for another day. It also has the benefit of being personal. You chose the contents of this book. So many times we are faced with taking a bit of wisdom from pages and discarding the rest that we don’t believe in. Your commonplace book is a place where you are the author, editor, and publisher. You choose your own Inspiration.

“A commonplace 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. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own, by entering them there.”
— Jonathan Swift from “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet”


Jen N. Jen has spent her time homeschooling her five children since 2001. She has read over 5,000 books aloud. A fan of all things geeky, she calls her children her horcruxes — each one has a talent for something she might have pursued herself. Jen and her husband have created a family of quirky, creative people that they are thrilled to launch out into the world. With the three oldest graduated, Jen now has time on her hands and has started a blog:


1 thought on “Keeping a Commonplace Book, by Jen N.”

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