A Commonplace Book

“…a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.”

Here’s something I’ve always done but didn’t know that there was a term for until a recent discussion with +Peter Strempel. While I’ve always kept little notes of favorite quotes…only in the last couple of years have I become more systematic in trying to synthesize my “highlighted” passages by trying to summarize them, paraphrase them, or otherwise actively engage with my reading.

I have quite a complex system in Scrivener but, while it makes a great searchable archive and handy dumping ground for Kindle clippings, I find that my handwritten Commonplace Book is much more effective for capturing immediate impressions and wresting ideas from new material.

The point is I’m just thrilled to discover a new word. It’s like being admitted into a secret society of other avid note-takers.

Related Reading

Kevin Eagan: The Commonplace Book as a Thinker’s Journal

What Is A Commonplace Book & Why You Need One

Harvard gives us a look into John Locke’s “A new method of making common-place-books” — 1706, Harvard Mirador Viewer

Writing as Inquiry

GPlus Dicussion

Peter Strempel – 2017-07-31 23:36:06-0400

A little while ago the meme made the rounds that the loss of all is conscionable so long as WIFI remains.

I would surely miss the internet if it were not there, but I suspect I have come to take for granted so much my longhand journals that I would miss them more if I lost the ability to scribble and reflect on those notes – including, sometimes, lengthy passages copied from elsewhere.

My current journal is never far from my grasp, and accompanies me most places. There are times when circumstance demands that I leave it behind for a smaller jotter, anticipated as redundant, but very handy if the muse strikes, or information needs to be written down for more pragmatic reasons.

I find that information recorded primarily in digital format is often ignored or lost in the maelstrom of digital overload, but the act of writing by hand is in itself related to creating memory and beginning subconscious analysis of what is being written even as it takes shape.

It is my personal observation, and without malice, that people who only process information digitally are less thoughtful, insightful, or possessed of the skill of distilling the essence of that information.

(This post written in a delightful little font called Plantin Std, which has all the attributes of an eminently readable serif, plus some innate charm as a Roman variant, whose appearance on the screen, letter by letter, is pleasurable to watch for its own sake. Its only shortcoming is that at 12pt it looks like 10pt, and at 14pt it begins to lose the indefinable relationship between forms and empty space that is the mark of a masterfully designed font; maybe that’s only a kerning issue.)

M Sinclair Stevens – 2017-07-31 23:44:08-0400

+Peter Strempel Hmm. Odd. I chose this particular post (from many that popped up when I searched on the term) partially because it was laid out nicely. However, on my screen the font looks huge. Really big. I could almost read it without my glasses.

Peter Strempel – 2017-07-31 23:54:51-0400

The style sheet says it’s Droid Serif at 19px (14pt) on 30px, so it is a bit larger than other people use it.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2017-08-01 00:07:08-0400

I think I should have shared this post instead. Bonus…evocative quote from Virginia Woolf.

“Let us take down one of those old notebooks which we have all, at one time or another, had a passion for beginning. . . . Here we have written down the names of great writers in their order of merit; here we have copied out fine passages from the classics; here are lists of books to be read; and here, most interesting of all, lists of books that have actually been read, as the reader testifies with some youthful vanity by a dash of red ink.”

(Virginia Woolf, “Hours in a Library”), The Commonplace Book as a Thinker’s Journal – Critical Margins
M Sinclair Stevens – 2017-08-01 19:31:38-0400 – Updated: 2017-08-01 21:50:34-0400

Here’s an apt quote attributed to Proust by Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Save Your Life

“”In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never experienced himself. And the recognition by the reader in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its veracity.”

Marcel Proust via Alain de Botton in How Proust Can Save Your Life, p 25

I realize that I used to use my blog as a Commonplace Book. I rarely wrote reviews or critiques of books…mostly I selected quotes and made notes on them.

I always felt guilty that I hadn’t done my homework…and produced my “book report”. Now I see I wasn’t failing at one thing; I was doing another. Why don’t they teach this in school anymore?

Blogs were very good for organizing Quotes and Notes because I could use categories and tags. I could append and annotate.

Now I just use Scrivener and keep my musings to myself…except for throwing out teasers on Google+ from time to time.

Peter Strempel – 2017-08-01 20:19:30-0400

+M Sinclair Stevens It’s a handsome quote that resonates with my own conviction that an author cannot connect to readers if what is written doesn’t resonate with some part of the reader’s experience of the world, the intuitive sense of yet missing or incomplete experience, and a desire to know more that knows boundaries only in terms of credibility and patience for repetition.

Why don’t they teach this at school? Good question. Research and information processing skills have long been absent from curricula. It was only individual teachers who imparted what knowledge they had in that regard to me; there was never any formal instruction on it, with one exception.

In the mid-1980s the Australian author and academic Humphrey McQueen gave a guest lecture to my undergraduate ‘literature, language, and culture’ class on how to make and organise notes in a logical fashion for subsequent prose presentation (as essay, thesis, or book). It was one of the most useful lectures in that stream of my English degree: I remember it today, while most other lectures are long forgotten (a couple of lectures by John Fiske on meanings in culture and sub-cultures remain fixed in mind too).

I suppose this kind of thing isn’t taught anymore because our teachers themselves weren’t instructed in how to do it, and don’t have the nous to recognise it as a key skill that precedes and assists analysis – the ‘comprehension’ part of the measurable outcomes, which is in itself, today, indistinguishable from blithe regurgitation. It is much easier to suppose plagiarism and rote learning is comprehension than to asses an interpretation that requires personal thought to recognise as critical thought and synthesis.

My notebooks are full of laboriously copied quotes. Usually as contrast to my comments on them, and mostly with a view to returning to either the subject or the theme in a more complete consideration at some future time. I estimate that this return occurs only rarely, though the ideas generated in the process bubble to the surface in some quite surprising ways. Sometimes only years later.

As an aside, in my undergraduate years I once starred in an amateur film by fellow student Mark Fraser and student newspaper editor Graham Senders, where I played a young James Joyce (with a terrible Irish accent) greatly anticipating a fictional social meeting with Proust, imagining all the things we might have to say to each other, and ending up saying nothing of consequence at all when encountering him.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2017-08-01 22:32:37-0400

I’ve always sought other systems for arranging my notes than strictly chronological. So I keep separate handwritten books for my journal and my notes on my reading. I would never find anything if I dumped everything into one “box” in chronological order.

I have various electronic systems, too. For quotes, I organize them by topic, author, and work…electronically, because that was one of the original purposes I had when I bought my first computer in 1985.

I try to use my handwritten Commonplace Book for notes on things I read on the Internet or in magazines.

I have too many systems, I know…but I have made some improvement. I used to just have piles of scrawled notes on old envelopes and sticky notes pasted everywhere. Now I keep a Bullet Journal.

Except for books I’m rewriting out of frustration (like my college Japanese textbooks), I rarely write margin notes in books, or underline or highlight…but I tend to mark passages with little bookmarks, intending to write out the quotes later…which, if I don’t do immediately while reading the book, almost never happens.

This discussion has unexpectedly drawn out a memory of a system I developed in high school. I used to keep notes on 3×5 cards with information from magazine movie reviews. On the cards, I cross-referenced directors (mostly) and some actors. I knew already that my best chance of liking a movie was if it was by some director I liked…rather than because it had an actor I liked. It was a hypercard stack a decade before the Mac. And my own little IMDB two decades before that.

If I had only been as diligent in my studies…just think of how brilliant a scholar I might have become.

Peter Strempel – 2017-08-02 07:00:24-0400

You might say that I was ‘unburdened’ of my archaic system of several kinds of notebooks by losing all of them in the Brisbane flood of 2010/11. A good deal of my digital archive, burned to CDs, was also lost.

Since that time I have only ever had one ‘common’ book on the go at any one time, and everything I suspect I might need to lay my hands on again is typed into my digital journal, which is a series of quarterly Microsoft Word documents that are searchable without the need to open them separately. Just as well: last year I wrote 600,000 words in my digital journals, and a little less than half that in my longhand journals. The years before were far more prolific – two or three times as much – due in large part to my degree studies between 2013-2015.

Whenever I start a longhand journal, I leave the first few pages blank. When it is full, I handwrite contents into those pages. Nevertheless, my longhand journals are largely unmanageable without clues about what I was writing I gain from my digital journals, that then lead me to my long-hand journals within a date range that is more manageable than checking individual tables of contents.

The note-taking method mentioned to us by Humphrey McQueen was a variation on the index card method. I used it with slips of A5 paper (easily created by cutting in half A4 scrap paper (which seems available in limitless quantities in any office environment). Only one side is needed.

On each clip of paper is written a heading that summarises the content or purpose of the note, a date, (of a quote, the day of making the note, or part of a chronological sequence in a planned narrative), and the quote, fact, or other information (but taking care to make it short and simple).

These slips of paper can then be stored in a shoebox, or even manila folders in a filing cabinet. They can be sorted and ordered as required to aid a narrative flow (whole essays can ‘write themselves’ with that preparation), and they can be re-0used later for other purposes by simply re-ordering them and merging with other collections of slips.

A good part of the reason that I was awarded the certificate for outstanding journalism graduate in my graduating year was that my research project came with an archive box full of such slips, detailing in great depth the details of the ‘WA Inc’ corruption scandal I had chosen as my project. Other students submitted not much more than a spiral bound reporter’s notebook and a final draft of a current affairs story.

These days I don’t use paper slips any more. Instead I have experimented with One Note, but found it both too undisciplined and not sure enough of surviving as a product over the longer term. MS Word, however, is increasingly standards compliant, and most other word processing applications will open its documents (and even do a good conversion job if the original formatting isn’t too fancy).

I cannot imagine switching to one of those hipster alternatives, let alone entrusting my data to the ‘cloud’, keeping in mind that ‘cloud’ is a euphemism for ‘someone else’s server’.

I tend to think, too, that the great white hope of Google Apps fell short of expectations: Google Docs is clumsy and relies too heavily on a decent quality of service between my machine and the remote servers. The assumption of good quality connections is laughably naïve, and the Google overhead in RAM and CPU is just laughable. In addition, I had some very bad experiences with using shared spreadsheets, where cells were overwritten and deleted so often that not even the restore feature could undo the mess.

A second-rate alternative is the Apache/Libre/Open Office suite; unfortunately it is a little too clumsy for regular use while I still have a working version of Word (Microsoft is busy at destroying its word processing dominance both by changing the source code of an application that has been stable for a long time, and through a subscription model that will mess with workflow by constant attempts to contact some remote server that just doesn’t respond very quickly. I’d rather use a typewriter than subject myself to that chicanery.


Getting back to your topic, though, I always gained brownie points as a student for being more disciplined with my research than other students, and also for being a better writer, even when my arguments were not as strong as they might have been.

I recall that during my last business process management unit in 2015, I persuaded my team (teamwork is an annoyingly mandatory part of the academic hype cycle) to not just let me re-write all contributions to create a single, cohesive, narrative ‘whole’, but to also lay it out in InDesign. Our tutor, lecturer, and professor gave us extra points for the professionalism of the presentational aspects that just weren’t there for the others who mostly relied on templated formats for Word and online software.

So, I think you have to do three things really well to get top marks: quality of thought is paramount, and includes clarity of expression to get that quality across effectively; this must be underpinned by solid research evidenced in appropriate citations and correctly formatted references (many, many students crapped out on this point alone); and the presentation of the final product – whether it’s a paper or a some other kind of submission – must be as professional as it is possible to make it. By ‘professional’ I mean to a standard for which you might charge a putative paying client big money.

I know you well enough to suppose you have the intellectual side of things covered, and that you know how to produce professional communications products, but I sometimes wonder whether you don’t lose yourself in tangents and blind alleys with the research and the focus of the final message.

M Sinclair Stevens – 2017-08-02 10:11:58-0400

“…I sometimes wonder whether you don’t lose yourself in tangents and blind alleys with the research and the focus of the final message.”

I certainly do! I wander/wonder hither and thither. For example, I’m sure I could have learned Japanese by now if I had attacked my studies with rigor and discipline.

This morning got me wondering whether I shouldn’t revisit an old stomping ground, a more theoretical landscape. Even if it is now obscured by the Amazon cloud. On my list to explore today as this discussion seems reminiscent of discussions elsewhere.

I love hearing about other’s systems…as long as they don’t proselytize a “one right way” for me to follow. To each his own. But I love hearing about what others do and pick and choose ideas that intrigue me.

I do sometimes get overwhelmed with my many systems; overall it’s what works best for me…as decades of trial and error have shown.

I don’t pretend that my system would work well for anyone else and it’s far from perfect even for me. But developing it is a process and still ongoing. Scrivener is bringing more and more discipline to my efforts. I was wary of trusting it until I discovered that everything was stored as individual .rtf documents which I can access even if Scrivener goes under. Plus it’s a desktop application which doesn’t automatically and constantly update itself. So it feels stable.

I’ve been through two other major applications which were abandoned by their makers, forcing me to move on. (MindWrite and FrameMaker). After the pain of that, I swore never to write anything but text files (.txt, .html, or .rtf). Scrivener isn’t a word processor, exactly…it’s more of a document organizer. Just what I need.