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?
After I read this yesterday, I was on the Read Aloud Revival website and she has an episode about starting simple reading journals for your kids. What she does with her family is a reading log in the first 20 or so pages, and then a commonplace after that. Reading your post on commonplace books and then reading this other post on an example of how to keep one has made me want to start doing this with each member of my family. (I was up way too late last night looking at journals on amazon.) Thanks for introducing me to the idea of commonplace books! I’m excited to get started with this and through it, engage more with the books I read.
Thanks for sharing what you discovered yesterday! I had not thought about keeping a commonplace book for kids, but the great thing about that you can start a record for them when they are small – a central place to keep not only a list of what they’ve read, but also their favourite quotes! I know I have both lists of books I’ve read as well as “good quotes” strewn all around in various notebooks or scraps of paper, many of which have inevitably been lost over the years. What a great gift to start that early . . . and something to for yourself as well. These are such great ideas. Now I’m wanting to get my own reading logs and quotations organized better into commonplace books! Thanks so much for sharing your motivation and ideas!
Also, I love the quotations in this essay!
Thanks, Emily! (you’re welcome to include them in your commonplace book 🙂 )
Dear Serious Heather,
I don’t resist reading passively if it is pleasurable. However, if the book “sucks”, it is gone! I love to read to be entertained, and that might be considered passive reading. BUT I am enjoying it and I am relaxing. There is a very good place for that. In fact, if you are enjoying the read, then I suggest that you ARE interacting with it. There is pleanty of stuff to read that is challenging or with which I have to interact to really take something away or simply get the point. In my case it is probably academic. I’ve had lots of that. So, a cozy chair on a cold day outside, a warm yellow sun through the window and a great “page-turner” in my lap will probably make my day.
My thoughts, UJ
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Hello UJ! I totally agree with you: I don’t think reading for enjoyment is “passive reading.” And I think you put it quite nicely when you wrote that “if you are enjoying the read, then I suggest that you ARE interacting with it.” One of my favourite reading memories was a summer part way through university, sitting in my dorm room on an ordinary afternoon, reading a book that had nothing to do with school and one which will never show up on a university syllabus. But I sat in my room and laughed, and laughed and was so thoroughly entertained and rejuvenated by the experience that it has become one of my favourite reading memories. Was I interacting? Not with anyone else. But I was having a great time and I was certainly interacting with the text in a very real way on my own. It didn’t matter that it was not what I’d consider a literary book, or that it was a private experience: it was a meaningful interaction. And so I agree that I think there’s great value — and interaction — in finding pleasure in reading.
What I was trying to articulate (and perhaps need to clarify a bit better) is that I had come to a place in which I was neither reading with an eye to engage with others from what I had read, nor was I enjoying what I was reading (though it’s the kind of writing I otherwise would have enjoyed – this had more to do with my state of mind at the time than the writing).
While writing this post, I was thinking about — though I did not articulate this in it — the parallel between passive reading and passive TV watching. One can be entertained by TV, or educated by it, or one can also just passively watch it, without learning, interacting, or being entertained. When I wrote that I had been passively reading, I meant that I had been doing the equivalent to having the TV running in the background. Or perhaps watching show after show, back-to-back-to-back, not because of a purposeful marathon, or because the suspense was too much to stop, but because, well, why not? – there was nothing better to do. In this, I felt that there was no real engagement or enrichment. (And I would say that genuine entertainment counts as an enrichment). These comparisons of passive reading to passive TV watching are not exact, but I think there’s something in the analogy that speaks to what I was thinking about.
So I’m very glad that you brought to the forefront the clear distinction between passive reading and reading for enjoyment. (And for the chance to be able to clarify a bit by riffing off your comment!)
I’m not saying that I’ll never just sit down again and enjoy a good book again without thinking about what I might write about it. But I will say that since beginning this blog, there’s been an added delight to my reading experience because I’m interacting with what I’m reading, knowing I will be writing about it – a delight I had not expected.
Read on! (and enjoy!) Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts!
Your blog caught my eye because of it’s title! I think I’ve been commonplacing for years, but I didn’t know what it was until later in life. I loved reading through your thoughts. I know that I ruminate and “chew on the cud” of my reading so much more by slowing down to write out things that strike me. This year my biggest, most intense project I’ve taken on in awhile is to slowly and carefully read Les Miserables with it’s own common place journal. Charlotte Mason, a British educator at the turn of the 20th century, wrote about how when we take in something “living” (a well-written book, for example, or a piece of art) and then “retell” it in our own words, we are actually taking it in and making the ideas our own. We can really only learn something by retelling them in a way unique only to us. You and I might read the same book and walk away with many different things. Whether those things be just for ourselves, or to our journals, or that we share with a friend . So if we are commonplacing and refueling our minds with reading, and then sharing those things through our stories, our filters, and our writing, it’s a good thing, an expansion. I’m not talking about plagiarism or anything, I’m taking about the feelings, the wisdom, and the essence of what we are gaining through the reading. Hopefully, this makes sense. I love the Woolf and Lowell quotes, as well as the photo of yourself writing. I’m a big fan of the old-fashioned lantern lamps. 🙂 Amy
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I love the idea of slowing down to really take in the experience of reading, and making it your own. Thanks so much for sharing your reading process, Amy, as well as explaining a bit of the ideology (pedagogy?) of Charlotte Mason. I had not heard of it before, but what you’ve written makes sense to me. It’s also neat to hear about how you’ve kept commonplace books. And it pleases me to hear that you stumbled upon my blog because of its name! I don’t feel so bad now that it’s taken so long for me to actually address commonplace books in a post! 🙂 Thanks also about the photograph – the work of my husband again, snapped a couple of Thanksgivings ago when I was writing at the table after dinner. Those old lamps are lovely, aren’t they? Somehow, the lamplight makes me think of old commonplace books, with their compilers carefully copying quotations into them in the flickering light.
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Yes, candles and lamps go well with writing. ❤
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Great Virginia Woolf quotation. I have one in my record book: “Words have been used too often; touched and turned and left exposed to the dust of the street. The words we seek hang close to the tree. We come at dawn and find them sweet beneath the leaf. Virginia Woolf, “Jacob’s Room”
Thanks. Keep writing. I especially liked the idea of creating poems from bookshelf arrangement!! AE
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Thanks for the great quote, AE! It’s deep – I had to read it twice to fully appreciate it. I’ve yet to read “Jacob’s Room” but the strength of that quote alone now makes me want to.
Thanks for your words of encouragement. The bookshelf poetry was fun – I hope to do a second installment sometime soon! 🙂
Heather. I absolutely love this. Thanks for sharing your talents.
Thanks so much, Ashlee! I’m glad you enjoyed it! 🙂
I have 124 commonplace books. I have been keeping them since 1987. There has been some evolution over the years as I copy far more prose passages than poems these days as my writing has gravitated almost entirely to prose though with poetic passages. I love your blog. I’m a follower and a believer 🙂
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That is an amazing number of commonplace books! I would love to get to the point at which I have that kind of wealth of recorded reading to draw from! I found it interesting what you wrote about how your commonplace books have evolved to reflect what you are *writing* (not just reading). Your comment has caused me consider how what we read is, or can be, a reflection of what we write, and not writing just a reflection of what we read. Glad you shared your thoughts! Also, thank you for your kind words about my blog! Happy you stumbled upon it! Welcome! 🙂
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