Abstract digital art, suggesting a flower in a pond, by Tucker Lieberman
art, nonfiction

What’s a ‘commonplace book’?

“For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times in November 2020. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake. About once a year, I’ll say something I think is worthy of inclusion. I mostly end up deleting those entries.”

I have always done this, too, since I was 18. In my first year of college, in 1998, I started my own website as a hobby, and I began filling it with my own mini-essays (“blogs” were not quite invented yet) and interesting passages that I found in library books and typed up. As my list of quotations grew, I grouped them by theme; and as the lists continued to grow, the themes multiplied and became more specific.

“Do you keep a notebook?” Prof. Lance Morrow asked my essay-writing class in my journalism program in 2004. He explained to the class that he meant writing down personal musings and interesting passages written by others that might fuel our own future essays. I answered that I did; I had multiple “notebooks,” organized by theme. (The class seemed to think this was a little over the top.) Also, my “notebooks” have always been digital, so that the information is readily searchable by keyword and copy/pasteable in case it needs to be reorganized or, at long last, incorporated into an essay of my own. (I do sometimes use paper and pen to transcribe information, but ultimately I type it up because that’s how it will be more usable.)

In 2020, I counted the number of themed files. There are two hundred. They include:

abortion, abstractions, activism, affluenza, altruism, animals, anxiety, art, attention and busyness, beliefs, bias and control, body, brain, caring, Cartesianism, celibacy, certainty, chance, charm, cheating, climate change, cloning, coaching, commercialism, compassion, conformity, creativity, death penalty, decision-making (and gut instinct), dialogue, dirt, disaster insurance, disgust, domination of nature, emotions, enlightenment, environment, epiphany, eternal now, ethics (business), evolution, faith-based charities, false memory and confession, food (and hunger), forgiveness, free speech, free will, friendship, gender, giving, God (and: anthropomorphism, atheism, biblical authority, faith, feminist theology, “on your side,” and “knows secrets”), grief, hair, handicapping agreements for games, healing, history, honor, human rights, humanism, humility, humor, immortality, integrity, Internet history, interpellation, Israel, Jewish, journalism, knowledge (and not knowing, deliberate ignorance, and ridiculous beliefs), language, liberty and security, literacy and numeracy, logic, love, lying (and rationalization), marijuana, marriage, math, memory (and the permanence of Internet publication), mind, money, monsters, mortality, myth (and political myths), names, natural disasters, “nature or nurture,” networks, nostalgia, oaths, organ transplant, Orwell, Panopticon, paradox, patriotism, peace, philosophy, pleasure, poaching, political polarization, politics (and unwritten norms), power, prayer, prisoners, procreation and parenting, prohibition of alcohol, race, regret, relationships, relativism (this one, dear reader, may be the longest, at 70,000 words), religion and science, religious experience, risk, ritual, saying no, self, self-sacrifice, sexuality, shame, skill, sleep, software design and testing, soldiers, solitude, success, suicide, technology, Thanatos, theodicy, time, tolerance, tree, trust, twee, utilitarianism, vegan, virtue signaling, weapon metaphors, werewolves, writing

Plus, of course, the indispensable catch-alls: “nice turns of phrase” and “miscellaneous.”

If I’m writing an essay and I suddenly remember a phrase I was once struck by, I can search any of these files (or my entire computer) by keyword. Then I can cite it in what I’m currently writing.

I recently told someone that I organize my digital files like this, and she asked if it was difficult to come up with these themes and stick to the organizational system. No, I answered. The themes were born from need, and they developed organically, as when one begins with a messy room and begins labeling the shelves as a response to appropriately accommodate all the material that already exists. Also, I stick to it only insofar as it works. I put the material on the “most correct” shelf because where else would I put it? So I use my files appropriately, and thus they work for me.

If I started with a blank slate, now, at age 40, my labels for these files would be completely different. They are what they are because they spun off of a system I kicked off, semi-consciously, when I was 18 and just starting to make a big proto-literary mess.

I suppose I could restructure everything, but there seems to be no urgent need to do so. And this would be a huge project; how would I begin to approach the 70,000-word file labeled “relativism,” a book-length document comprised entirely of other people’s statements on this subject?

The benefit of keeping the “old ways” is that they are embedded deeply in my brain. When I’m reading and a quote strikes me, I don’t have to ask myself, “Which of 200 themes is this best categorized under?” I already know “what I want the quote for”; my “themes” are just my shorthand keywords for something I already implicitly recognize and understand. It is a private, decades-long conversation I have with myself.

I didn’t know this was called a “commonplace book” until I saw Dwight Garner’s essay in 2020. I have since heard that Ryan Holiday discussed the concept in his book The Obstacle Is The Way. Update: Cory Doctorow also used the term in a May 2021 essay in which he said that he’s been writing digitally since 1979 when he was eight years old, although such notes tend to be valueless for him unless he blogs them, in which case he puts in enough effort to make them readable for an audience who may stumble across them, so they are easier for him, too, to refer back to.

“I have endless running text-files from the 1980s and 1990s in which I jotted down notes to myself. These are better than my actual notebooks in that they are searchable and I don’t have to decipher my handwriting, but I can’t really say that they generate much value for me as a writer. I couldn’t tell you the last time I referred to them.”

It feels like a commonplace activity within my own life because I’ve always done it. I don’t know if others consider it a normal thing to do. I have never had any other word for it. Sometimes I write “QUOTES” at the top of a piece of paper so that I know the material has to be typed up. Apart from that, it has been a nameless activity for me.

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