On Rewiring My Reading by Keeping a Commonplace Book

Since I earnestly began keeping a commonplace book, I’ve been astonished to find that I read differently. It’s as though the process has rewired my brain.

This change has been completely unexpected, not something that I willed, forced, or even knew to hope for. Rather, it’s as though the change showed up uninvited and unknown (but not unwelcome!) on my brain’s neurological doorstep. “I’ve come to rewire your brain’s pathways,” it said to me one day. And before I could say “Do come in,” it was already fusing new links together in unexpected, exciting ways.

How did this happen?

As best I can tell, the way I read has changed because I’ve been consistently asking my brain to do something different, to operate in a new way. And it has responded accordingly.

It’s the natural consequence of a repeated activity.

It reminds me of a similar kind of unwilled rewiring of the mind that I experienced several years ago. At the time, I was commuting by bicycle several hours each week, and had been doing so for a few months. I knew the city well, and could navigate several routes to my usual destinations, making quick decisions on the way to change my path due to traffic, construction, time of day (or night), or even mood.

The moment happened when I was waiting for a light to turn, my feet firmly planted on the pavement. That day I was going to a new destination, and took advantage of the red light to think, trying to determine the most direct route. As I did so, it was as though I  called up the recesses of my mind in a visual way, and suddenly I could no longer see (though I never stopped viewing) the light or the cars surrounding me. Instead, I saw, clearly, in my mind, a map, as though from a bird’s eye view. As though I had my own digital data in latent storage.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this map was created by my thorough knowledge of the streets by riding them for months, and perhaps, I realize now, from looking at many maps. I could actually see the most direct route, though I’d never taken it before. It was as though my mind, when in need, had created its own digital Google map or GPS, relying not on satellite signals, but my own first-hand knowledge of the streets, pieced together from my frequent cycling and my consistent, constant attention to the details of my ride.

Now, I’m no scientist. My only credentials are a heightened curiosity of the external and internal world around and within me, and a desire to record my observations. But it seems to me, amateur as my understanding and observations may be, that in that moment, I experienced, or at least saw the evidence of, the rewiring of my brain. It had been collecting data for months, stitching together the partial information, before it literally, visually showed me new pathways to take. A light turned.

Now, to do with my reading.

Almost since I learned to read (late, at age seven), I’ve been an avid, voracious reader. As a child I read on the school bus. I read in the car. I brought books with me wherever I went, even if it was just to the grocery store. I still do. Though I don’t now have the same quantity of wonderfully disposable time in which to read for pleasure as I enjoyed as a child, I’ve still averaged, for the past few years, about four books per month. I am a slow, but consistent reader, with several books on the go at once.

That’s all to say, I have a pretty consistent track record of a steady, rather unbroken  habit of reading over the past twenty-five plus years. But in the last month and a bit, since I began to earnestly keep a commonplace book, the way I read unexpectedly, existentially — that is to say, on an essential level — has changed.

It’s surprised me, not only that this change has happened at all, but in so little time.

I first started my current commonplace book — this blog — as a way to engage with others and to keep track of my reading. But since writing my post On Commonplace Books a bit over a month ago, I’ve been inspired by readers’ comments to keep my own commonplace blog in earnest, one separate from this site. I began, yet again, another word processing document, this one with a table of contents built into the formatting. This was my newest incarnation of a commonplace book.

It’s been something I’ve been meaning to do for years. And since I’ve been introduced to the personal essay, the idea of a commonplace book has additional appeal to me. Quotations I collect for my commonplace book could be used in my own, future writing.

Finding and identifying quotations in my reading to use later in my writing is not a new practice for me, in and of itself: when studying literature as an undergrad and later in graduate school, I searched for passages that were in some way fundamental to the text, or spoke to one of the themes I was interested in following and could later use in an already developing argument. IAnd I’ve continued in my reading to heed that urge to underline (in pencil) when I find a passage that I particularly like or find somehow captivating, just because.

But reading for a commonplace book is different than reading with an eye towards writing an academic paper (where I’m looking for themes I can talk about in the book or intertextually), or even a book review (in which I may additionally be giving a judgement on the book’s literary qualities). Rather, I’ve found that when I read with my commonplace keeping in mind, I am reading outside the context of the book. You could say I am, in a way, misreading.

A passage I might include in my commonplace book does not need to be fundamental to the book from which it is plucked, nor does it even have to be remotely related to one of its many themes. In fact, it may be — and many are — ancillary. An aside, a keen observation, a pointed commentary. Oddly, a great number of these passages read as aphorisms.

Good books will always have good quotes: good writing must be good at the sentence level, as well as the plot or idea level. (Sometimes, I’m realizing, all a captivating book really is, is a lure of a good plot, better summarized than read!).

I have to both be more aware of what I’m reading, and also be able to simultaneousy read it out of context. Is this quote quotable? Or is it just the climax of a story or idea that’s not easily transferrable, and, on its own, looks less than extraordinary?

In this way, I must misread the book: I read it in its particular context, but I misread poignant sentences to see if they still hold their strength independent of that context. If they stand the test, I can consider including them.

I file them under my various categories of my own construction, and I’ve been surprised to see how the books I’m reading at the same time seem to speak to each other, seem to overlap in numerous ways. Who knew that Madeleine L’Engle in A Circle of Quiet would write that “One of my favorite authors, Anon, wrote, centuries ago . . .” while Virginia Woolf would similarly comment, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”

When I read now, I’m not looking to make an argument; nor am I simply copying what other people thought was noteworthy. Instead, I am carefully selecting individual sentences, out of their context, maybe to be used later in an entirely different one. Maybe not to be used at all.

It may be tempted to think this kind of reading distracts, as though I am only mining for good one-liners, I could read this way, of course. Or I could simply search the internet for [“insert whatever subject”] and come up with any number of quotes which others have  already collected on the subject.

But I am doing something more with my reading that is impossible to do if I were just handed a collection of quotes, a Dictionary of Quotations, or someone else’s commonplace book. I am learning how to think outside the context of what I am reading.

Because I do not know the context in which these quotes may later be used. I have to be discerning enough to potentially pluck good sentences out of context; but also must be aware of what that original context is, if even to show a differentiation later on.

It occurs to me that this analytical process is not unlike what we do when we write personal essays. Essays, as opposed to narratives or stories, are not usually plot-driven but are propelled by ideas. Experiences, memories, and scenes can enhance essays in meaningful ways to produce vivid pieces of literature. But these experience, memories, and scenes are often plucked out of context. We cannot give the whole backstory, after all. We cannot include parts that are not going to advance the exploration of the idea,  outside the relative room for some meandering, as the essay is wont to accept.

It’s often easier to identify experiences after they’ve happened as essential to an essay that’s in the process of being written; more difficult to do so while the experience is happening in the moment. We don’t know what experiences might make it into future essays; we only know that what happened, what we saw, what we observed, is somehow significant. Better take note, underline it, hopefully jot it down somewhere, preferably in a book.

In a similar way, when I read now, I am experiencing the book in a narrative way, or idea-based way if it’s nonfiction. But I am also misreading it to see if the passage can stand out of its context, in a future one that I do not yet know. If I think it has a reasonable chance, I will write it down, and think of a category under which to file it.

We don’t know which of our experiences or ideas or observations are later going to be used in an essay, or in writing at all, Rather, they get filed away in our memory, or jotted down in our writer’s notebook, hopefully, for the day they might be used.

Now, I feel that if I don’t record significant quotes from my reading, it’s like having an experience (going on a trip, say) without taking any photographs, or without writing about it at all in my journal; it doesn’t need to be much in order for it to jog my memory, but I need to put something down. I have a poor memory, after all.

Interestingly, this kind of reading has not detracted from my enjoyment of the books I’m reading. Rather, it has enhanced the pleasure of it. I’m reading doubly, now.

And instead of merely reading out of context, I read more deeply into it. A quotation, as an experience, can perhaps only truly be appreciated when it’s first understood in context, and then applied in a more universal way.

The essay, after all, is a genre concerned with beginning with the particular and moving out towards the universal: to make an experience applicable, not only in its more particular circumstance, but made readily available for broader ones.

If my brain has been rewired by reading in this way, if it’s made new ways to travel over old pathways, then I feel I may be coming a bit closer to becoming a better essayist.

Of course, I am just at the beginning. Who knows what a lifetime (or at least, what’s left of mine) will do for me, in terms of how I read, and also, what I choose to read. Already, half-way through a book, I’m considering not finishing it. It’s easier to see the quality, or lack thereof, when I realize there’s little substance at the sentence level. (Which is a eyeopening warning about my own writing.)

Commonplace books are more than a collection of quotes.

Rather, I’m creating an index, not for just a single book, but for for all my reading — everything I’ve read! (If I keep being diligent, that is.) Different books intermingling together in interesting ways under single and various topics. They are not summaries, but the real substance.

It’s not only that I’m stockpiling amazing quotes that I can easily whip out when needed; reading with my commonplace keeping in mind is causing me to think and thus read in a different way, the way an essayist must learn to re-read her experiences.

Question: In what ways have you experienced a “rewiring” in your reading or other experiences?