The Commonplace Book: Part I

Over at the PigPog Blog is a great post about Storing Nuggets of Information, calling for ideas. This is something I’ve been struggling with for many years myself, and have only lately been making any sort of headway. When I think about all the years of WordPerfect files, text files, photos stuck between pages of books, MS Office files, sundry (often ancient) forms of databases, scraps of paper in drawers, JPGs, PSDs, PCXs, shoeboxes of articles, OOo files, CorelDRAW illustrations, Commodore 64 Paperclip files, and so on, it’s a wonder I have any sort of retention at all except for memory. Half of the files I’ve gathered over the years are locked in obsolete proprietary formats gathering dust on 5.25″ or 3.5″ floppies, probably never to be seen again. (For the record, none of my current computers even have a floppy drive). I’ve had to face the fact that many of these potentially valuable scraps of information have been lost forever.

There is a possible solution for this dilemma, though, and one that comes from a bygone age. For many centuries, it was one kept faithfully by the learned, the artistic, the scholarly, and even the merely curious. I’m referring to the Commonplace Book.

On a computer, the best program I’ve ever seen for handling this sort of thing is undoubtedly DEVONthink Pro (which is only for the Mac, alas — see a little review of how I use it here. It keeps almost everything within a directory-based structure, indexes RTF, MS Office files, HTML, PDF, JPGs and many more formats, has great back-up and export options, and is transparent with the file system (e.g., you can even mount an FTP site and drag an image straight to the server from DTPro). The biggest deal for me, though, as a writer, is the whole idea of concordance (“what’s related?”). It can suggest any number of other articles or scraps of information by topic matter, and the more you feed into it, the smarter it becomes.

But paper is entirely another matter. A well-organised set of filing cabinets helps, but unless impecably maintained, it soon becomes an unfocussed system filled with unimportant or irrelevant material.

Enter the “commonplace book” system (a literal translation of the locus communis, referring to a theme or argument of common application) that started around the fifth century BCE, became very popular during the Renaissance, and continued through to the early part of the 20th century.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Commonplace-book. Formerly Book of common places. orig. A book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement. First usage recorded: 1578.

The general heads mentioned would be a topic-oriented approach, the choosing of which would be attuned to the mind of the keeper, and hence ideally suited to the needs of an individual rather than a collective. It then becomes an extension of our personal interests and pursuits.

So here we sit, amongst the vast and towering constructions of a digital world, and yet we perceive there is a potential need for something like this. Why? Well, while it’s true that many of us receive a good portion of our information online (especially if one is an I.T. professional), we still receive many little bits of data during the day in our offline hours as well. We still see TV news shows, we still read magazines, we still peruse newspapers, we still chat with friends, we still rush about the world persuing our individual lives and sensing stimuli. Because we rarely think to take down these valuable bits of information we encounter, they often disappear forever.

Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it. … The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. 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.” –Robert Darnton, “Extraordinary Commonplaces,” The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000

Besides the aforementioned writers, many other significant or learned people down through the centuries have kept them, including heads of state, artists, academics, lawyers, technicians, gardeners, clergy, and even quite ordinary families (and those lucky few who have preserved their family’s commonplaces now have a treasure that they undoubtedly cherish). You’ll see them repeatedly in the stories of the time. In Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s tales, Sherlock Holmes kept a large and sprawling commonplace book upon his shelves, essentially his own home-grown encyclopedia of people, places, crimes, and pertinent facts, like the colour of mud from various locations, or the consistency of tobacco ashes. In the middle of a case, Holmes would rush to his commonplace, haul down a book, and read out a newspaper article concerning (say) the disappearance of a hydraulics engineer a year prior. His attic of a brain remembered vague references, but the books held the details that allowed him to pursue his work. And so it was for everybody that used them.

Pay careful note to the bit in the last quote relating how people “read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book” — doesn’t this remind you of how the Internet and modern information overflow affect us every day? We can’t stop the world and digest it in an orderly flow from beginning to end; we must make sense of it as it winds and unravels before us, and therefore need some sane place to collect it, dissect it, analyse it, reference it, learn it.

One might argue that an effective filing system with cabinets and folders serves much the same purpose, but with a somewhat less personal touch. There is, however, another fundamental difference, and it relates to the level of disposability of information. A filing cabinet system is a place with expanding folders where we can toss any mildly interesting or potentially useful piece of information. For example, we might file away a booklet with Internet usage statistics for 2003, or the tax guide for 2004, or a price quote, or a magazine article about the current crop of sinus medications. It is something that holds larger pieces of reference information, and that should be purged every now and then –about once a year, by the opinion of many organisational experts.

A commonplace book, on the other hand, is for keeping small but valuable snippets of information: phrases, sentences, paragraphs, small articles cut from the newspaper, sketches of locations, references to recommended books, meaningful chunks of statistics, inspirational quotes, handy measurements, geneological diagrams, biographical notes, and so forth. Contrary to what one keeps in a filing system, the commonplace book is an important source of finely-tuned information to help digest subjects, expand one’s mind, and turn to for help on a particular topic. We don’t generally need to purge such a thing; in fact, the greater the resource we build it, the more beneficial and cherished it becomes. It often makes fascinating reading on a dreary winter’s night, or when you’re facing some sort of mental blockage.

To all those who yearn for a non-digital way of collecting and organising helpful nuggets of information, I’d suggest considering a commonplace book as a way of keeping your data and inspirations in order. A little organising and collecting now will lead to huge dividends in the future.

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