Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.
There is an old saying that the truest form of poverty is “when you have occasion for anything, you can’t use it, because you know not where it is laid.”
The flood of information is nothing new.
“In fact,” the Harvard historian Ann Blair writes in her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, “many of our current ways of thinking about and handling information descend from patterns of thought and practices that extend back for centuries.” Her book explores “the history of one of the longest-running traditions of information management — the collection and arrangement of textual excerpts designed for consultation.” She calls them reference books.
Large collections of textual material, consisting typically of quotations, examples, or bibliographical references, were used in many times and places as a way of facilitating access to a mass of texts considered authoritative. Reference books have sometimes been mined for evidence about commonly held views on specific topics or the meanings of words, and some (encyclopedias especially) have been studied for the genre they formed.
No doubt we have access to and must cope with a much greater quantity of information than earlier generations on almost every issue, and we use technologies that are subject to frequent change and hence often new. Nonetheless, the basic methods we deploy are largely similar to those devised centuries ago in early reference books. Early compilations involved various combinations of four crucial operations: storing, sorting, selecting, and summarizing, which I think of as the four S’s of text management. We too store, sort, select, and summarize information, but now we rely not only on human memory, manuscript, and print, as in earlier centuries, but also on computer chips, search functions, data mining, and Wikipedia, along with other electronic techniques.
The Florilegium and Commonplace Books
One of the original methods to keep, share, and remix ideas was the florilegium, which was a compilation of excerpts from other writings taken mostly from religion, philosophy, and sometimes classical texts. The word florilegium literally means a gathering of flowers — flos (flowers) and legere (to gather).
The leading Renaissance humanists, who experienced perhaps the first wave of information overload, were fans of commonplace books as a method of study and note-taking. Generally, these notebooks were kept private and filled with the likes of the classical Roman authors such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca.
“In his influential De Copia (1512),” writes Professor Richard Yeo, “Erasmus advised that an abundant stock of quotations and maxims from classical texts be entered under various loci (places) to assist free-flowing oratory.”
Arranged under ‘Heads’ and recorded as ‘common-places’ (loci communes), these commonplace books could be consulted for speeches and written compositions designed for various situations — in the law court, at ceremonial occasions, or in the dedication of a book to a patron. Typical headings included the classical topics of honour, virtue, beauty, friendship, and Christian ones such as God, Creation, faith, hope, or the names of the virtues and vices.
The aim of these books wasn’t regurgitation but rather combinatorial creativity. People were encouraged to improvise on themes and topics. Gathering raw material alone — in this case, information — is not enough. We must transform it into something new. It is in this light that Seneca advised copying the bee and Einstein advised combinatorial play.
A Move Away From Memory
Theologian Jean Le Clerc, writing about John Locke’s use of commonplace books, said:
In all sorts of learning, and especially in the study of languages, the memory is the treasury or store-house, … but lest the memory should be oppressed or over-burthen’d by too many things, order and method are to be called into its assistance. So that when we extract any thing out of an author, which is like to be of future use, we may be able to find it without any trouble. For it would be of little purpose to spend our time in [the] reading of books, if we could not apply what we read to our use.
Commonplace books, during the Renaissance, were used to enhance the memory. Yeo writes,
This reflected the ancient Greek and Roman heritage. In his Topica, Aristotle formulated a doctrine of ‘places’ (topoi or loci) that incorporated his ten categories. A link was soon drawn between this doctrine of ‘places’ (which were, for Aristotle, ‘seats of arguments’, not quotations from authors) and the art of memory. Cicero built on this in De Oratore, explaining that ‘it is chiefly order that gives distinctness to memory’; and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria became an influential formulation. This stress on order and sequence was the crux of what came to be known as ‘topical memory’, cultivated by mnemonic techniques (‘memoria technica’) involving the association of ideas with visual images. These ideas, forms of argument, or literary tropes were ‘placed’ in the memory, conceived in spatial terms as a building, a beehive, or a set of pigeon holes. This imagined space was then searched for the images and ideas it contained…. In the ancient world, the practical application of this art was training in oratory; yet Cicero stressed that the good orator needed knowledge, not just rhetorical skill, so that memory had to be trained to store and retrieve illustrations and arguments of various kinds. Although Erasmus distrusted the mnemonic arts, like all the leading Renaissance humanists, he advocated the keeping of commonplace books as an aid to memory.
While calling memory “the store-house of our ideas,” John Locke recognized its limitations.
On the one hand, it was an incredible source of knowledge.
On the other hand, it was weak and fragile. He knew that over time, memory faded and became harder to retrieve, which made it less valuable. In something the internet age would be proud of, Locke’s focus was retrieval, not recall. His system was a form of pre-industrial Google.
Locke saw commonplace books not as a means to improve memory but as an aid in recollecting complex information gathered over the years from multidisciplinary subjects. If only FS existed in his day.
Locke sometimes refers to his bad memory. This might seem to endorse the humanist conception of commonplace books as memory aids, but Locke does not believe that memory can be trained in ways that guarantee transfer across subjects and situations. This separates him from many of his near contemporaries for whom the commonplace book was still a stimulus in training memory to recall and recite selected quotations.
In his essay “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” Robert Darnton comments on the practice at the time, which was to copy pithy passages into notebooks, “adding observations made in the course of daily life.”
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality. … The era of the commonplace book reached its peak in the late Renaissance, although commonplacing as a practice probably began in the twelfth century and remained widespread among the Victorians. It disappeared long before the advent of the sound bite.
Commonplace books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity. Darnton continues:
By selecting and arranging snippets from a limitless stock of literature, early modern Englishmen gave free play to a semi-conscious process of ordering experience. The elective affinities that bound their selection into patterns reveal an epistemology — a process of knowing — at work below the surface.
The Art of Putting Things in Order
As for what to write in the commonplace books themselves, Le Clerc advised that we: (1) extract only those things which are “choice and excellent,” for either the substance or the expression; and (2) don’t write out too much, and mark the place where we found it so we can come back to it:
At the entrance indeed upon any study, when the judgment is not sufficiently confirm’d, nor the stock of knowledge over large, so that the students are not very well acquainted with what is worth collecting, scarce anything is extracted, but what will be useful but for a little while, because as the judgment grows ripe, the things are despis’d which before were had in esteem. Yet it is of service to have collections of this kind, both that students may learn the art of putting things in order, as also the better to retain what they read.
But here are two things carefully to be observed; the first is, that we extract only those things which are choice and excellent, either for the matter itself or else for the elegancy of the expression, and not what comes next; for that labour would abate our desire to go on with our readings; neither are we to think that all those things are to be writ out which are called … sentences. Those things alone are to be picked out, which we cannot so readily call to mind, or for which we should want proper words and expressions.
The second thing which I would have taken notice of, is, that you don’t write out too much, but only what is most worthy of observation, and to mark the place of the author from whence you extracted it, for otherwise it will cause the loss of too much time.
Neither ought anything to be collected whilst you are busied in reading; if by taking the pen in hand the thread of your reading be broken off, for that will make the reading both tedious and unpleasant.
The places we design to extract from are to be marked upon a piece of paper, that we may do it after we have read the book out; neither is it to be done just after the first reading of the book, but when we have read it a second time.
These things it’s likely may seem minute and trivial, but without ’em great things cannot subsist; and these being neglected cause very great confusion both of memory and judgment, and that which above all things is most to be valued, loss of time.
Some who otherwise were men of most extraordinary parts, by the neglect of these things have committed great errors, which if they had been so happy as to have avoided, they would have been much more serviceable to the learned world, and so consequently to mankind.
And in good truth, they who despise such things, do it not so much from any greater share of wit that they have than their neighbours, as from what of judgment; whence it is that they do not well understand how useful things order and method are.
Locke also advised, “to take notice of a place in an author, from whom I quote something, I make use of this method: before I write anything, I put the name of the author in my commonplace book, and under that name the title of the treatise, the size of the volume, and the time and place of its edition, and the number of pages that the whole book contains.”
This number of pages serves me for the future to mark the particular treatise and the edition I made use of. I have no need to mark the place, otherwise than in setting down the number of the page from whence I have drawn what I have wrote, just above the number of pages contained in the whole volume.