Commonplace books (or commonplaces) were a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They became significant in Early Modern Europe.
“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.
Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers and legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Thus, they aren’t the same as diaries.
I started keeping a commonplace a couple years ago, when I realized I had accumulated dozens of slips of paper featuring sayings and observations on various topics that I found pithy, humorous or insightful. Not wanting to lose track of this wisdom, I purchased a small notebook (pictured above), in which I recorded it. With the passage of time I have continued to jot down sayings from books, cartoons, magazines, newspaper articles and the like. As of now my commonplace includes entries from some 250 sources!
In addition to its being a volume through which I can browse on a quiet afternoon, I see my commonplace book as something that testifies to my individuality and interests. My hope is that, in the distant future, other people can, by scanning my commonplace, gain important insights into just who Rob Stone was.
One thought on “To Know & Be Known #1: Commonplace Book”
A commonplace is such a good idea! I started something a little like it years ago–I bought a small hardcover blank journal, into which I copy good quotes, poems, short vignettes and the like whenever I run across something I like and want to remember. When an elderly aunt of ours passed away, my sisters and I discovered her several spiral notebooks, where she recorded recipes, words and phrases, questions she wanted to ask various family members (some of these were rather eye-opening), and other arcane bits and pieces of her inner life. Some of it was touching and sad, her unmet longings and dreams. Until now, I didn’t know there was a name for this kind of collection. Very interesting.