Monday, September 06, 2010

There's Nothing Common About Commonplace Books

It's been a while since you've seen my desk, but that's not the reason why I'm showing it to you. (And I didn't even tidy up for y'all!)

Looking at that mess, you'd probably think that I like pairs of big monitors (yes), pens (yes), and all sorts of books in which to write (yes). (Like all the other photos in this post, you can click on it to view it full size.)

A couple of weeks ago, I read a post about commonplace books written by Amanda on her blog, Desert Book Chick. Susan Wise Bauer describes a commonplace book as "a handmade Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." With the addition of personal reflections, scraps of writing and poetry, and other pieces of information, commonplace books become a sort of artificial memory.

See that short stack of three books sitting on my desk? The top one has some sort of striped thing on the cover. Those are my commonplace books that I began keeping when I moved cross country from Illinois to Utah to go to college.

You see the very first one here to the right. From that red, white and blue dove on the cover, you probably won't be surprised when I tell you that I started writing in this in 1973.

From the very beginning, I included personal reflections amongst all the quotations-- anything from bad poetry to lists to a description of the sky on a particularly memorable day.

These books chart not only my reading but my handwriting as it changed over the years. To the left, you can see that I was rather "loopy" in 1978 as I wrote down my lists of Ten Essential Books and Ten Books to Be Read Immediately. Has that first list changed between 1978 and 2010? You better believe it! But... I wouldn't have the faintest clue what my "essential books" were in 1978 if I hadn't kept this commonplace book.

Turning the pages in these books reacquaints me with books that stand the test of time. Reading the quotes can make me laugh, make me sad, make me furious, make me think. Each one is personalized just for me.

I can see that a quote I believed described me to a T in 1977 still does in 2010, but that the tone of the words has changed from wistfulness to contentment. More than anything else, turning the pages of my commonplace books is reliving the chapters of my own history.

It is so much easier to relate to myself as I was then by reading quotations from the books that meant so much to me-- books that were instrumental in opening my eyes and shaping my mind. The lists, the terrible poems, the bits of description make that oh so very young me that much clearer when read in context with the books I loved.

Even a bookmark in a commonplace book can bring back waves of memory. I've always used the last bit of lace trim from my prom dress as a commonplace bookmark-- even though there's nothing common about that lace or all the words on all those pages.

How about you? Have any of you ever kept commonplace books? Do you keep one now? How meaningful are they to you?


  1. I only started keeping commonplace books about 5-6 years ago.
    I use mine to collect ideas, hilarious bad translations and overheard lousy language usage (my field of work is in translation and linguistics), quotations and recipes. I also use them as a notebooks and sketch books.

  2. I find those completely fascinating, Cathy. I have come across a few fiction books through the years that are written in the style of a scrapbook or something like that and I really loved them.

    What a treasure to go back and read your thoughts as well as even just see how your handwriting has changed. :-)

    I have kept a list of books that I have read for almost 20 years, but it's just a list. It's helpful in many ways, but I never thought about looking at my handwriting (which is deteriorating badly). Very interesting.

  3. Quite a few bloggers--including me--started their blogs with "commonplace book" somewhere in the title. After about a year I did take it out, because the blog had become less about talking to myself and more about talking to other people.
    In a junior-level college literature class I required my students to keep a commonplace book of things they read or heard that had to do with the topic of the course, and so of course I had to make one too, as any good teacher tries her own assignments to see where the challenge will be.
    I don't keep one now, but love to read about those of other people!

  4. I wish I had kept something like that years ago - it would be wonderful to look at now to see how (or if) I've grown.

  5. I love your commonplace books! I wish I was as consistent with my commonplace books! I have various notebooks with lots of notes and titles, scraps of articles I wanted save. It's fun to look back and see how my tastes in reading have changed.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your special books with us! And thanks for reminding us that all these scraps and notes from our lives make wonderful memories!

  6. Yes I saw Amanda's post it was interesting. I had never heard the term before! I do keep all sorts of diaries, scrapbooks and notebooks though which I guess are the same or a similar thing. Thanks for sharing yours :)

  7. I have never heard about commonplace books either. I kept a diary when I was quite young, though, and looking back at that stage, I think it helped me finding a writing voice.

  8. Bibliophile-- They sound like something I'd definitely love to page through!

    Kay-- When you're young, I think it's common for your handwriting to keep evolving because you are evolving as a person. Mine may have gone through a few more stages because I was involved with calligraphy for quite some time.

    Jeanne-- I tend to be very inquisitive. I not only love to see others' blogging spaces, but I wouldn't mind a good page-through of their commonplace books! LOL

    Kathy-- Sometimes that very young me seems like an entirely different person. I don't know if that's a good thing... or a bad thing!

    Suzanne-- You're very welcome. I don't think I would've started the whole commonplace book adventure if I hadn't purchased my very first "official" book to write in. I'm as addicted to office supply places as I am bookstores!

    Lindy-- You're welcome. I think many of us keep commonplace books and don't even realize it. I know I wasn't aware of what I was doing until I'd graduated from college and happened to run across the term in a book I was reading.

    Dorte-- I know that writing favorite quotations in my commonplace books helped me to remember them and to remember phrases and language. I would say that they have helped to give me my "voice", too (although I often only croak).

  9. I've never heard that term either. Like a journal? I've kept those off and on throughout my life and included daily thoughts, concerns, feelings and observations - along with doodles and lists and other such randomness. Now the only one I have is blog related - my blog bible to keep track of post ideas, scheduling, notes from online learning and phrases/titles/ideas that pop into my head.

  10. Molly-- A bit like a journal but much more book-based: filled with favorite quotes from your reading.

  11. I used to collect quotes when I was in junior high and high school. I got out of the habit when I went to college. Later, I started taking notes on my reading and then . . . well, I started the blog.

  12. Beth-- Same here with the blog, but that's not really doing the same job as the commonplace books. Perhaps I should add a new page to my blog? Hmmm....


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