On Commonplace Books

Sometime after finishing my MFA, I realized I had slipped into passive reading. No longer was I reading with the intent of discussing what I read. No longer was I becoming aware of the ideas that formed in my mind after reading. I wasn’t underlining key passages for future reference anymore. No, I was just letting the words wash over me.

I was reading for the pleasure of it.

Except that I wasn’t finding pleasure in it. That’s not to say that I can’t sit down and enjoy the experience of reading without worrying about what’s happening on a literary level. Indeed, there’s little I find more refreshing than finding a cozy place to curl up with a good book.

But that wasn’t what I was doing. Rather, I was reading for consumption, something I feel reluctant to admit, especially since these were mainly personal essays and other pieces of creative nonfiction. Instead of being immersed in the experience as I am when reading for the sole pleasure of reading, I was merely swallowing whatever the text held, like dutifully taking my vitamins. (It was good for me, I told myself.)

It became clear that I needed to stop what had become an absurdity to me: I was reading books, ones I otherwise would have enjoyed, because I felt I ought to.

When I was in school, I had anticipated the exciting engagement that would follow my private act of reading, and would read accordingly. I read with an eye towards discussion with others. Without that accustomed anticipation of engagement with others, I was now just reading passively. I again wanted to read with an eye towards engagement.

And so, I decided to start a commonplace book.

In creating a commonplace book, I would have a place to keep track of my reading, to record passages I’d found particularly interesting. But I would first need to be aware enough of my own reading to identify these passages.

I’d previously had another commonplace book, years before, when I first heard them mentioned, in passing, at some point in my undergrad in English literature. I’d created a word document on my computer where I typed my favourite quotes from literature I’d read.

Later, I would eventually read a commonplace book, a manuscript posthumously published, written by a sixteenth century woman, which I had studied for an English graduate course I took a number of years ago. The professor I’d studied with, Victoria Burke, explains in an abstract to her article “Recent Studies in Commonplace Books” that “In their purest form, commonplace books were written in Latin by schoolboys who organized sententiae under topic headings, but educated amateurs of both genders used and adapted the form well into the seventeenth century.”

The Harvard University Library website explains on its page “Commonplace Books,” that “Commonplace books serve as a means of storing information so that it may be retrieved and used by the compiler, often in his or her own work.” This is found in an interesting online collection called Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reader History. “In the most general sense, a commonplace book contains a collection of significant or well-known passages that have been copied and organized in some way, often under topical or thematic headings, in order to serve as a memory aid or reference for the compiler.”

The Harvard university website again explains, “The commonplace book has its origins in antiquity in the idea of loci communes, or ‘common places,’ under which ideas or arguments could be located in order to be used in different situations.” Commonplace books, it seems, have a long history.

As I thought about creating my own new commonplace book, I began to see links between it and the personal essay. Indeed, reading about the origins of the commonplace book made me reflect that personal essays are not dissimilar to them in that essays are often a compilation of quotations on a single topic. Though this is admittedly a gross oversimplification, I will nonetheless ask the following rhetorical question: What else are Montaigne’s individual essays but quotations and commentary from his own experience?

Not only could I collect quotations from my reading: I could use them in future essays. Here, I found a new way in which I could engage with my reading. My eye towards engagement with my reading was now in the form of writing.

I began by collecting quotations by topic as I read, such as ones about books.

Like that lovely quotation from Virginia Woolf’s essay, “Street Haunting”: Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

Or the one I found online by James Russell Lowell (1819-1891), “. . . books are the bees which carry the quickening pollen from one to another mind.” (I did some digging to find its source, The Round Table, and looked it up myself to ascertain its correct attribution.)

When I found this second one, I realized the need for a more sophisticated filing system than the word document I was using (or the hand-written, index-like system that I imagined previous practitioners had used). This quote, you see, had the word “quickening” in it – and I needed to cross-reference it with that subject, a topic of interest for an essay I’d been working on. I needed a digital database.

Slowly, my idea of creating an online resource was formed.

Though the logistics of creating an online database that was searchable with cross-references proved to be an undertaking too complex for my current platform (never mind the copyright infringements I’d not previously considered in quoting and storing several passages from individual works of contemporary writing in an online system), I did begin a blog that hearkened back to the original idea of beginning a “commonplace book.”

And while the idea shifted to include a “book blog” — a place in which I could review books — the focal point on reading all the while remained the same. I added the component of writing tips for fellow writers. But eventually the ultimate focus of my “commonplace book” became a place for the writing of my original, personal essays, a place in which others could also engage with reading.

As I consider the full name of my site, Commonplace Book Blog, I like the fact that it can be interpreted in so many ways, each for its individual functions. My online “commonplace book” has indeed evolved into a loci communes, a common place to find all things bookish.

But I’d like to call attention to one final association with its name. And that is, the commonplace. Period. The personal essay, after all, usually is concerned with the everyday, the quotidian: the commonplace. I’d like to think that “commonplace” in its title also reminds the reader that it’s a place where the seemingly everyday is given priority by being written about in a meaningful way.

My commonplace book blog has successfully brought together the two practices of reading and writing. It’s a way that I’ve not only been able to engage more fully in my reading: I’ve also been able to share it with others.

Not long ago, I’d slid into the dangerous practice of reading passively. Now, it feels like there is something missing in my reading if I am not fully engaging in it, if I am not actively thinking about how I might write about what I have read.

There is a quote about books that I’ve typed and printed and put on my office door. I’m rather pleased that I found the quote myself in the context of my own reading, and that I didn’t just stumble upon it somewhere random online. Rather, I found it while reading Walter Benjamin’s personal essay “Unpacking My Library,” in the anthology The Art of the Personal Essay. So reads the passage:

“Of all the ways of acquiring books, writing them oneself is regarded as the most praiseworthy method.”

I suppose I have taken it to heart.


Question: How do you resist passive reading and instead actively engage?