A Brief Guide to Keeping a Commonplace Book

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I had the opportunity to write for Dirge Magazine while it was still online (Rest in Peace). I learned so much as a writer from the editors, so I wanted to make sure I was able to save my favorite and proudest piece. I grabbed the following article from the depths of Wayback Machine. The article was published in Dirge Magazine with the original title “Before Bullet Journals, There Were Commonplace Books” on January 8, 2017. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it!


The latest trend in self improvement is the bullet journal or the “analog system for the digital age.” The system, invented by digital product designer Ryder Carroll, allows users to turn a blank notebook into a to-do list, diary, notebook, and sketchbook. The bullet journal is especially helpful for those with tasks coming from multiple directions, and who need an organized plan of action that favors rapid-fire note-taking and prioritization. With the increasing number of technological ways to store information, it is nice to see the traditional blank notebook receiving fresh attention.

While the blank notebook basks in the limelight, I thought it might be fitting to discuss the commonplace book, the long tradition of using a blank notebook for storing and organizing information for later use. The commonplace book differs from bullet journals in that it is devoted to knowledge-making, and not necessarily planning out one’s life. A commonplace book is not a journal at all, as John Locke writes: “Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”

The commonplace book is an excellent tool for readers, helping memorialize words, phrases, quotes, passages, and images. Further, it creates an accessible reference book you can use forever and pass along to others. After providing an introduction to the commonplace book tradition, I will introduce my own experiences to help you start your own commonplace book. Like the bullet journal, you only need a blank notebook and a pen.

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James Blake’s commonplace book on constructing sundials (1745). Image credit: archive.org

What is a Commonplace Book?

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” (Harvard University Libraries). These books are traditionally handwritten and may include drawings and clippings from outside sources. Organization is as unique as the writer, but information is arranged so as to ensure accessibility. As writer and poet Jonathon Swift explains in “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet,” the commonplace book keeps the remarkable in our memory:

A COMMON-PLACE BOOK IS WHAT A PROVIDENT POET CANNOT SUBSIST WITHOUT, FOR THIS PROVERBIAL REASON, THAT “GREAT WITS HAVE SHORT MEMORIES;” AND WHEREAS, ON THE OTHER HAND, POETS BEING LIARS BY PROFESSION, OUGHT TO HAVE GOOD MEMORIES. TO RECONCILE THESE, A BOOK OF THIS SORT IS IN THE NATURE OF A SUPPLEMENTAL MEMORY; OR A RECORD OF WHAT OCCURS REMARKABLE IN EVERY DAY’S READING OR CONVERSATION.

Commonplace books are a tradition spanning from the Middle Ages to today. The concept originated from commonplaces in ancient Greece and Rome, categories under which orators could place ideas, arguments, and rhetorical turn of phrases for later use.  As most concepts in antiquity have, commonplaces would be re-purposed. In the middle ages and early modern period the florilegium (gathering of flowers) collected passages from religious and theological works (Harvard Libraries). The zibaldone appeared in fourteenth century Italy and was used by merchants to keep records of daily life and activities.

Its height of popularity was during the Renaissance and early modern period, where “students and scholars were encouraged to keep commonplace books for study, and printed commonplace books offered models for organizing and arranging excerpts” (Harvard Libraries). Although focused on the individual, commonplace books have been both published and passed down to later generations, a sort of autobiography of the mind.

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A page from a commonplace book to which Patrick Branwell (brother of Emily and Charlotte Bronte) contributed to. Image Credit: University of Texas at Austin.

Many famous thinkers and leaders kept commonplace books, including the following:

  • Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft kept a commonplace book filled with “ideas, images, & quotations hastily jotted down for possible future use in weird fiction.”
  • Thomas Jefferson kept two commonplace books for literary matters and another for legal matters.
  • Writer and activist Nancy Cunard kept a commonplace book full of quotes and poems by her friends.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shared a commonplace book about poetry.
  • American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton kept a commonplace book with “private notes, correspondence (to and from Elizabeth Cady Stanton), diaristic writings, literary transcriptions, and pasted-in engravings of various European tourist sites.”
  • Scientist Carl Linnaeus kept commonplace books to help systematize his findings.
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Elizabeth Cady Stranton’s Commonplace Book (1831). Image Credit: Archive.org.

How to Create A Commonplace Book: One Example

To keep a commonplace book you only need a blank notebook and a writing utensil; the content and arrangement is up to you as the compiler. I found my method has been developed through time and influenced by other commonplace books. Thus, I thought my own experience with this genre might provide you some ideas for starting your own.

As a child, I spent a lot of my time researching paranormal history and reading ghost stories and folklore. I was overwhelmed by the terminology and theories, and began keeping a notebook filled with handwritten notes, drawings, and articles I printed from the internet. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized I was participating in the tradition of commonplace books. I still, to this day, keep a commonplace book on the occult.

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My Commonplace Book. I was researching Ouija boards and then haunted bridges.

When I approach a blank commonplace book, I designate two sections in the front (table of contents) and back (glossary). Then, I number the pages accordingly. Whenever I am ready to start a new subject of inquiry, I write a title in bold at the top of the new page and make sure I repeat that title in my table of contents. Other practices I have developed over time include:

  • Instead of a glossary (in some cases), I made text boxes with key terms throughout the book, and then made an index in the back with the words and page numbers.
  • For information that doesn’t fit into a current section and does not warrant a new section (I call this “purgatory information”), I write it on a post-it and place it on the inside back cover. When its time has come, I simply move the the post-it to its new section.
  • To highlight key materials, I use highlighting and color-coding.
  • To enhance my understanding of complicated material, I occasionally create visual maps, tables, infographics, etc. For example, when reading about types of ghosts, I created a table that outlined their characteristics into columns.
  • When a desired passage from a source is too long, I am not afraid to print or make copies of the material. I tape or glue it into my commonplace book, and then write notes in the margins or highlight.
  • Materials I include in my “commonplace book pouch”: colored pencils, a nice pen (I like Sharpie black pens), tape, scissors, stickers, and highlighters.
  • I have used different notebooks for different commonplace books. My notebooks are usually lined, because I prefer writing. Though, I have used sketchbooks when my commonplace books incorporate more visuals than text.
  • I always recommend using a sturdy notebook so your commonplace book will last (and may appear in an archive someday).
  • I have been inspired by textbooks, so I often incorporate text boxes, sidebars, headings/subheadings, bulleted lists, etc.
  • I have, inspired by Virginia Woolf, kept a list of books I have read and a list of books to read in some of my commonplace books (as a sort of appendix).

This is one compiler’s approach to keeping a commonplace book. I suggest looking through examples online for ideas (I have linked some examples earlier and there’s archive.org). I also suggest letting your first commonplace be a trial run. You will develop your own unique system over time, and you may create different systems for different types of commonplace books you keep. There are some rather dated guides for writing commonplace books too, if you are so inclined (You could start with Locke’s A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books or Eramus’ De Copia).

In The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, Robert Darnton speaks to me in regards to why we keep commonplace books:

READING AND WRITING WERE THEREFORE INSEPARABLE ACTIVITIES. THEY BELONGED TO A CONTINUOUS EFFORT TO MAKE SENSE OF THINGS, FOR THE WORLD WAS FULL OF SIGNS: YOU COULD READ YOUR WAY THROUGH IT; AND BY KEEPING AN ACCOUNT OF YOUR READINGS, YOU MADE A BOOK OF YOUR OWN, ONE STAMPED WITH YOUR PERSONALITY.

There is no system for keeping a commonplace book, like the bullet journal. The reasons to keep one are so varied and the subject areas so diverse. And, I fear promoting one might interfere with your own personal “stamp.” Although you’ll be inspired by a mix of compilers, this book in the end will represent you.

Sources

Blair, Ann. “Humanist Methods in Natural Philosophy: The Commonplace Book.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 52, no. 4, 1992, pp. 541-551.

Brueggemann, Brenda Jo. Deaf Subjects: Between Identities and Places. New York University Press, 2009.

“Commonplace Books.” Harvard University Library Open Collections Program

Darnton, Robert. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future. Public Affairs, 2009.

Locke, John. A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, 1706.

McKinney, Kelsey. “Social Media: Nothing New? Commonplace Books As Predecessor to Pinterest.” Harry Ransom Center: University of Texas at Austin, 2015.

Swift, Jonathon. “A Letter of Advice to Young Poets.” English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay. The Harvard Classics, 1909–14.

In My Commonplace Book: Electromagnetic Fields & Ghosts

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When I was a child with a commonplace book full of ghost research (written in gel pens of course), I asked Santa Claus for an Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detector. I thought I could wave it around my friends’ houses and catch ghosts. I never got one. Bummer.

Flash forward to today: I’m more skeptical than I used to be and I have no idea what EMF means or how it works. So, I did some research for you/us. I am not an expert on the subject or claim to be, so please share any insights or articles in the comments. I’d love to learn more!

The following are notes from my commonplace book.


Definition of EMF: “a physical field produced by electrically charged objects” (Wikipedia).

A more detailed definition of EMF: “Electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) are invisible areas of energy, often referred to as radiation, that are associated with the use of electrical power and various forms of natural and man-made lighting. EMFs are typically characterized by wavelength or frequency into one of two radioactive categories:

What causes it? Where can it come from? EMFs can be produced from conventional power sources: computers, power lines, cell phones, home appliances, x-rays. etc (there’s a nifty chart in this article). Also, the further you are from the EMF-producing source, the less harm it does to you.

What effects does it have on humans? Ghosts?k2emf_animated

EMFs can affect the brain (and body) in many ways: shred your DNA, alter your morality, train you off food and water, cause seizures, etc (io9).

Research shows compelling evidence that EMFs can induce panic, disorientation, deep fear, and hallucinations–all things associated with hauntings. Though, research cannot 100% prove its validity.

One study published by Michael Persinger (a neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada) in a 2001 Perceptual And Motor Skills article followed the experience of a 17-year-old girl who claimed to receive visits from The Holy Spirit. She also felt the presence of an invisible baby on her left shoulder. An investigation revealed that the electric clock she slept 10 inches from was producing “electromagnetic pulses with waveforms similar to those found to trigger epileptic seizures in rats and humans” (Marcus, Scientific American). The clock, along with a minor brain injury in her youth, were the cause of her nocturnal visits. The visions stopped when the clock was removed.

My Commonplace Book
My Commonplace Book

For another study, psychologist Christopher French (Goldsmiths, University of London College in London) created a “haunted” room in an apartment building, which was filled with electromagnetic producers and infrasound generators (it is believed that extremely low frequencies can cause strange experiences). French and his colleagues invited 79 people to spend time inside this dimly lit room, warning them that they might experience some strangeness. Participants were also given a psychological evaluation to understand their paranormal beliefs. French said about their findings: “Most people reported at least some slightly odd sensation, such as a presence or feeling dizzy, and some reported terror, which we hadn’t expected” (Scientific American). French and colleagues could not 100% determine that these feelings were attributed to the EMFs.

Some researchers have also theorized why these alleged hallucinations (hauntings) happen most often at night: “Because of the way the solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere, the planet’s magnetic field stretches out on the side that’s in darkness. Some researchers hypothesize that this expanded field interacts more strongly with people’s brains” (How Stuff Works).

Some paranormal investigators will say ghosts cause high EMF levels. Another possibility is that high EMF levels create an ideal environment for actual paranormal activity. I once heard that some paranormal investigators will create high levels of EMF so to produce more activity during an investigation.

Photo by Mar Newhall on Unsplash

In My Commonplace Book: Two Mausoleums and a Bottle of Wine

IMG-8001I was recently invited to a friend’s home on a Wine Wednesday to share some ghost stories . She thought a live version of my #humpdayhaunts series (on Instagram) would pair well with wine.

This was my first time being a “guest speaker” on a paranormal subject, so I was very anxious! I decided to narrow down my subject to Indiana ghost stories. I also used the opportunity to find new material. For a few nights, I put aside time to fill my commonplace book with Hoosier folklore.

The night of the event, I came equipped with homemade bookmarks, zines on Haunted Indiana bridges, my commonplace book, and pictures for my “presentation.” I thought if I bored them to death, I could at least send them home with some goods.

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I shared about five ghost stories with two focused on mausoleums (because I love a haunted mausoleum). Funny enough, both haunted mausoleums are located in Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute, IN (which I’ve added to my cemetery bucket list).

Well, I’ll get to it…

Sheets Mausoleum

So, there was a wealthy businessman named Martin Sheets who lived in Terre Haute in the 1900s. Martin had an intense fear of being buried alive. He had a reoccurring dream that he was unable to move or scream when the doctor pronounced him dead, and he then regained consciousness in a coffin deep in the dirt. Luckily, Martin had some money to insure this did not happen.

Martin first had a coffin custom made with latches on the inside, so he could easily open his coffin. To make sure he didn’t have the pressure of dirt on his coffin lid, he had a mausoleum built. Lastly, he had a phone installed in the mausoleum that could make calls to the cemetery’s main office. Imagine getting that call: “Hi, y’all. It’s Martin. Can you come get me? I seem to have been buried alive.”

In 1910, Marin died and was placed in his mausoleum. The phone connected to the cemetery office until they got a new phone system, but they did keep the phone connected and active (it was in his will and paid for after all).

Several years later, Martin’s wife passed. She was found dead in her home, clutching her telephone tightly. Family members assumed she was calling for help. They held a funeral and prepared her to join her deceased husband in the mausoleum.

When cemetery workers went to place her coffin in the mausoleum, nothing seemed unusual or out of place…except that the phone was off the hook and hanging from the wall…

Did Martin call his wife from beyond the grave?

Heinl Mausoleum and Stiffy Green

In 1920, an elderly man named John Heinl passed away. The citizens of Terre Haute liked him very much, but his dog loved him the most. Wherever John went, so did the dog. Everyone in town called the dog “Stiffy Green,” because he had green eyes and walked with a stiff leg.

When John died, he was placed in a mausoleum and Stiffy Green was placed with a friend. The mournful dog would run away often and was always found on the steps of his deceased owner’s mausoleum. Eventually, everyone decided it would be best if Stiffy Green just became a cemetery dog.

Stiffy spent the end of his days in the cemetery and, when he passed away, was stuffed and placed next to the tomb of his owner.

Several months after Stiffy Green’s death, the cemetery caretaker heard a dog barking on the way to his car. He instantly recognized it as Stiffy Green’s bark and it was coming from the direction of John’s mausoleum. People also reported seeing the figure of an old man strolling the cemetery with a small phantom bulldog following along.

Both stories are some fun Indiana folklore. Please note there are multiple versions of each story and some details have been proven false over time. But, I’m not here to ruin a perfectly good story. 

In My Commonplace Book: The Stone-Throwing Devil

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This past week, I have been filling my commonplace book with eclipse folklore, my favorite #FolkloreThursday tweets, creepy dolls, and some new ghost stories. I had an especially fun time writing about The Stone-Throwing Devil of Great Island, New Hampshire.

George Walton, a wealthy landowner, and his family were tormented by an invisible force from May to August in 1682.

One Sunday night in May (about 10 PM), the Walton household heard loud pounding on their roof. George and several others went outside to investigate, only finding that the fence gate was taken off its hinges. Then, they were pelted by stones thrown by an unseen source. After running back inside, they witnessed rocks being thrown at the window and falling through the ceiling. This went on for several hours.

The next day, servants noticed there were many objects missing from the house. During their investigation, they found some of the household objects in the yard and other odd places. Stones also continued to drop from the ceiling and down the chimney. A black cat was seen in the orchard and everyone started to speculate it could be witchcraft.

That night the stone throwing continued. A hand was even seen thrusting out from a hall window and dropping stones on the porch.

Then, on June 28th, the stone throwing got intense. During supper, rocks fell onto the family while they ate. The dining table was smashed into pieces.

The rock throwing continued and sometimes stones were up to 30 pounds! George Walton was pelted by so many stones that he suffered from chronic pain the rest of his life.

The witch suspected of this aggressive behavior? It was an elderly neighbor woman that lost land during a feud with George Walton. After he took her land, she was heard saying he would “never enjoy that piece of Ground.” George and company believed this was clearly a curse.

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I drew some spilled urine.

So, George Walton though he’d fight witchcraft with witchcraft. With the guidance of a witch expert, George decided to cast a spell on his neighbor. This involved boiling urine and crooked pins in a pot. Before the pot could boil, though, a rock fell from the ceiling and knocked the pot’s contents all over the floor. He tried it again; more spilled urine. Then the handles fell off and the pot split into pieces.

The stone throwing continued.

George ended up lodging a complaint against his neighbor with the council in Portsmouth.  The council’s decision is unknown. We do know George was hit by rocks on the way to the hearing.

This story is documented by various sources, including a first-hand account by a Richard Chamberlain, which you can read HERE.

During my research, I learned the term lithoboly or a mysterious hail or rain of stones that pelt victims and property and is usually caused by witchcraft or demons. I added the term to my glossary page for future reference. Side note: you might keep a glossary in the back of your commonplace book.

Source: Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits. 1992.


Commonplace book exercise for this week: Find a historical account of someone allegedly attacked by witchcraft. Maybe you might find some accounts on archive.org? Like the story I shared above? You might read and write about The Bell Witch.

In My Commonplace Book: #FolkloreThursday + Smudging

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Y’all, I’m back with my commonplace book and ready to do some weekly updates…staring now!

My commonplace book has been filled recently with a lot of miscellaneous information, tiny bits I just had to capture. I usually come across this information on Twitter. Articles that have caught my eye on Twitter lately include:

#FolkloreThursday on Twitter has also been a source of knowledge and community for me. Each Thursday folklore scholars and lovers share their favorite pieces of folklore in 140 characters or less. I like to screenshot my favorite tweets, print them, and glue them into my commonplace book.

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I have also done some research on making smudge sticks. I had so much sage in my garden and thought purifying my space would put it to good use. I still have so much to learn about the origins of smudging and its complexities (colors, herbs to use, uses across cultures, etc). The following links have only started this current research project.

I especially loved this quote from the last article.

To understand the protocol means you have to learn something about aboriginal people. So in a sense the medicines are working in a kind way, saying ‘learn about me and we can respect each other and we can walk together’ – Cat Criger, aboriginal elder-in-residence at the University of Toronto

Commonplace book exercise for this week: Join #FolkloreThursday this Thursday and write down (or copy/paste) some of your favorite tweets! 

In My Commonplace Book: Japanese Ghost Diseases

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As some of you know, I keep a commonplace book and it is the very reason I started this blog. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the concept or would like to learn more, I wrote about the brief history and use of commonplace books in Dirge Magazine.

I consider myself a lifelong learner and I am, like all of us living in a digital world, constantly bombarded with interesting information. The commonplace book provides a way to capture and reflect on the (spooky) things I learn everyday. My commonplace book is strictly about the occult, so I thought I might share what I’m writing about in it on the blog each week (Update: I know, I have not done so. But, expect it to pick up early August).

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This week, I filled my commonplace book with Japanese spirits that cause infection and diseases. 

Long ago in Japan, human illness was caused by tiny creatures that crawled into your body and wreaked havoc. According to one source I found, there was a book written in 1568 titled Harikikigaki (author unknown), which delineated 63 of these types of creatures and ways to fight them off with herbal remedies.

Another source and a favorite of mine provided details on these types of spirits (although not necessarily outlined in the book mentioned above). Yokai.com is an online encyclopedia on Japanese ghosts and demons with beautiful illustrations and detailed entries. You can easily get lost in there for hours.

I filled my commonplace book with notes from this site, and wanted to share the most interesting ghost disease I came across.

So, the GYŌCHŪ is a intestinal worm with six arms and red tongues. It is sexually transmitted and lives and breeds in the host’s sex organs. It reproduces on Kōshin night (from the ancient Kōshin religion), which occurs every 60 days. On these nights, the Gyōchū left the bodies of their hosts to visit the King of Hell (and Judge of the Damned). These worms were very gossipy and would tell the King all their host’s sins. The King of Hell would then punish hosts for their sins. To avoid having this gossipy worm in your body: don’t have sex on holy nights.

Commonplace book exercise for this week: Check out Yokai.com and take some notes on some of your favorite yokai.