I don’t know why but just recently the words commonplace book seem to have kept bobbing up – in things I’ve been reading, inevitably on social media, and in my thoughts as I’ve been reading a particularly good book. A commonplace book is something I associate with past times, with people, particularly women, jotting phrases, quotes, lines of poetry and other little phrases and pieces of writing they come across and want to remember. Maybe they want to remember them because they are interesting, pertinent, amusing, meaningful, or in some other way resonate or appeal.

Commonplace – as a noun or an adjective, means ordinary, everyday, usual – and in fact when I looked it up there were seventy-five other words or phrases meaning the same thing. A commonplace book however seems to be a record of things which aren’t run of the mill, middle of the road, mainstream or unremarkable – they are things which strike the reader as being unexceptional, undistinguished, uninspired, unexciting or unmemorable. I’m not sure if I was surprised or not to find they date back to Greek and Roman times, as Wikipedia tells me:

Commonplace books, or commonplaces are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses.

When I was a student it was a thing to copy quotes from books which we were expected to memorise and regurgitate in essays and exams – in fact one of my A-level teachers expected our essays to be little more than a string of quotes – all credited of course, to answer whatever the question was she had posed. Her argument was that we were all too ignorant to have opinions of our own, and I wonder whether that cost me several grades in my exams. This is straying from the point!

The reason I’ve been thinking of commonplace books is I am so enjoying and so impressed by Kindred: life, love, death and art, by Rebecca Wragg Sykes which I wrote about yesterday. It is such an amazing book, and I keep reading out bits which I particularly like, but of course, now I can’t remember which bits so impressed me. If I had jotted them down I could enjoy them again, if I had a commonplace book (or just ‘commonplace’) I could refer to them later, I could share them here or with friends. It made me think back to other books with memorable passages, sentences or phrases – I remember laughing out loud at passages in the first in the River of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, called, unsurprisingly, Rivers of London. If I had jotted them down I could be having a chuckle right now at them. Other authors who spring to mind whose influence has been important to me – John le Carré, Dickens, Simon Armitage… I could have a lovely and useful selection of what I have most admired in what they have written.

I didn’t realise that commonplacing, as it’s called when you keep such a notebook, goes along with journaling (including dream journaling) keeping a diary and a writer’s note-book as something which aspiring writers are advised to do. As I’ve mentioned before, I keep most of my ideas and observations in my head as I often can’t remember what my scribbled notes mean, or what their significance is, but I know people who do keep very detailed diaries/journals/notebooks… which I guess is what is understood now as a commonplace. Here is a really interesting and useful article about it:

The article has much to ponder on and offers an answer to the question of why keep a commonplace; in brief it will help one

  • To remember what inspired you
  • To save hours on research
  • To find unexpected connections
  • To focus your future reading

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