26 June 2014

Commonplace Books: What Are They And Why Do You Need One (or More)?

Dear Lissy,
Hooray for summer vaca!  You'll be heading off to camp in a few weeks, but right now you're trying to keep yourself busy with everything from painting to reading to crafts.  You're old enough now to learn skills and read books that will stay with you for the rest of your life.  You've even started your very own commonplace book.

What is a Commonplace Book?  
 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a commonplace book as:  
"n.  A personal journal in which quotable passages, literary excerpts, and comments are written."
A page from my current book, started in late 2013.  Notice the blank facing page so I have room to meditate on (and maybe argue a bit) with these thoughts, or even add an additional similar idea from another source.

Historically, Commonplace books have been used to further the education of the author, not just record favorite passages and excerpts.  Following the quoted material, the individual often expands and meditates on the original.   Here is a slideshow of famous author's commonplace books.

Types of Commonplace Books
  • Traditional - A traditional commonplace book is easy to begin.  Find or purchase a simple notebook and number the pages.  At the end of the book, create an alphabetical listing with 1/2 -- 1 page per letter.  As you copy entries into the front of the book, record the topic or title and the page number in the index. Boom, done.
    • Example:  None.  This is a unique format.
    • Pros:  Very easy to use - simply write the information into the next blank page.  Chronological format shows personal growth and change over the years, much like a journal.  Washi tape or tabs can be used to visually organize  (Example green tape or tabs along pages that have gardening information)
    • Cons:  Set-up time numbering pages and creating index, can be difficult to re-find material.
A Bible reading plan I copied from Good Morning Girls to prepare my heart for Thanksgiving last year.

  • Course-Driven:  Using a separate notebook for one book --  or all of the books contained in one course --  is also common.  Note the chapter and title as you read, and always include a page number with the quotation.  It is best to leave the facing page blank for lecture notes or personal observations.     
    • Examples:  Bible Study Notebook,  Course notebook/lab book, Reader's journal.
    • Pros:  Easy to use in conjunction with a book or class, good reference material, aids in learning process.
    • Cons:  Does not allow expansion of topic as knowledge increases, Usually tied to one or two resources. No room for miscellaneous information unless a separate book is carried.
This notebook is from an online course I took entitled "Women of Influence."

  • Vade Mecum ("learn with me"):  Use a notebook to track information and reference material while learning a new skill or trade.
    • Examples:  Garden journal, Notes from skills-based coursework such as computers, cooking, carpentry, sewing, painting, etc.
    • Pros:  Powerful and traditional way to learn a skill. If thoughtfully organized before starting, Vade Mecum books can be a life-long tool.  Daddy requires his apprentices to carry a small Field Notes or Moleskine Pocket Journal for this purpose.
    • Cons:  If lost or destroyed, almost all information is lost.  A backup must be made.  Can become disorganized if user isn't careful to review and index information each day.
My cooking Vade Mecum begun in high school.  This information is second nature to me, but I'm teaching it to the three of you now.

  • Topical - In this system, a set of file folders in either letter (A4) or index card size (A6) are started on topics of interest.  As you encounter information on those topics, add it to the file.   
    • Example:  Recipe files.
    • Pros:  Only a few cards or small notebook must be carried to record information.  Very easy to locate and re-organize information if a topic grows large or unwieldy.
    • Cons:  Not portable.  Very easy to drop printed material into file rather than re-writing and accumulate a vast quantity of low to mid quality material, defeating the purpose.
My tatty recipe box -- a type of topical file.

  • Electronic - Computers are custom made to store and sort information in any and every way imaginable.  Commonplace books can be as simple as folders on a desktop, or as complicated as an app like Evernote that is accessible across multiple platforms.
    • Example:  Evernote, Pinterest
    • Pros:  Material is completely organized, searchable, and infinitely expandable.  Difficult to lose or destroy electronic data that is backed up.
    • Cons:  Easy to include vast quantities of  low to medium quality information.  Requires hand-held device to add information away from home.
Why are Commonplace books important in the 21st century?
Commonplace books were originally developed because of a shortage of books and printed material.  If a learner desired to have a copy of information, he had to laboriously copy every word by hand into a personal notebook.

The 21st century has introduced a glut of information on every topic and cheap books.  The new commonplace book seeks to curate the best gems from the avalanche of information rubble.   

 I require everything in my daily Commonplace book to be hand-copied.  If the quotation or recipe or gardening tip is valuable enough to write out longhand, I know I'll want it again.  If I don't want to take the time and energy to copy, I question the value of the material for me long term and stick it on Pinterest instead. If I refer to it again from Pinterest, I'll likely take the time to copy it longhand into my commonplace book.

 I don't journal in the traditional sense of the word, but my Commonplace journals are a reliable map of my life and interests.

Writing information helps make it part of my own experience.  I read thousands of words a day, but only want or need a tiny fraction of those to remain with me. I can copy, pin, paste and otherwise duplicate information, but a photocopy doesn't imprint on my brain to be mulled over later.

My day-to-day life is 80% mundane tasks.  Keeping a commonplace journal helps me to think intentionally and grow during my workday rather than slipping into worry, fear, or drama.

My formal schooling has ended, but keeping a commonplace book allows me to self-educate on topics I find interesting (watercolor painting) or necessary (asthma).

A commonplace book inspires and informs me in my many roles.  When a friendship strains, or I'm overwhelmed as a parent, or I just need a new recipe; I flip through my Commonplace books.  Chances are I'll find something to encourage and strengthen my heart.

I hope you'll keep "commonplacing" as you grow older -- it's a habit that has blessed my life time and time again.

With uncommon love,

1 comment:

  1. Great information! Thanks for sharing, it's always fun to read about journaling.