March 24, 2021

Keeping a Commonplace Book

Everyone needs a place to store little bits of information they come across each day. Enter: the commonplace book.

Keeping a Commonplace Book

This is a reprint of a piece I wrote for my newsletter back in June 2020. Seeing as how that newsletter is no more, I thought it best to migrate it here instead.

With everyone home and looking for new projects to keep themselves busy, it’s the perfect time to start a commonplace book: a notebook or series of cards filled with knowledge and information you want to hold onto for reference later.

What a Commonplace Book is NOT

It’s not a journal, bullet or otherwise. It’s not your collection of morning pages. It’s not a stream of consciousness rambling of your thoughts.

A commonplace book is deliberate. It’s curated.

Okay, So What IS a Commonplace Book?

As Ryan Holiday puts it:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

That’s about as simple and clear an explanation as you’re going to get. Which leads us to the biggest question of all:

How Do I Keep a Commonplace Book?

Well, I use mine to store favorite quotes, passages from books I read, and important lessons (not just facts), among other things.

It’s not about writing down as much information as possible. A commonplace book needs to be personal to you. It’s a bound record of your tastes and what you find important.

What you can keep in your commonplace book:

  • Quotes
  • Poems
  • Passages from books
  • What books you’ve read and what you learned from them
  • Learned wisdom
  • Family recipes
  • Jokes
  • Records of important conversations

What Should I Make My Commonplace Book Out Of?

My book stays on my desk – it’s not something I carry around with me. I use a Classic Hardcover Notebook from Write Notepads, but you can turn anything into a commonplace book.

A Rolodex is easily updatable and if you make a mistake, just chuck the card and start a new one. Cards you may not need anymore can be archived to make room for fresh ones.

You can even trim index cards down to fit inside the plastic sheets on today’s Rolodex rotary systems. Use colors to help index the kind of information stored on each.

For those who want to stick to notebooks, however, here are some great brands to look into:

What if I’m Not at My Desk?

Carry a pocket notebook with you! Write Notepads makes some great ones, as does Field Notes, Story Supply Co., Leuchtturm1917, and Rhodia. Record your thought on the go, then transcribe it into your commonplace book when you get home.

You can also use digital apps for this, too. Your phone’s Notes app would work well. I’m a particular fan of Drafts and Bear on iOS.

I’d argue toward NOT using these apps as your permanent commonplace book repositories though. Apps die and technologies change, but…

…paper is forever.