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. There you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there. For take this for a rule, when an author is in your books, you have the same demand upon him for his wit, as a merchant has for your money, when you are in his. —Jonathan Swift
Since I was little, I have had a fascination with commonplace books. A researcher by nature, I always want to document my intellectual pursuits and reflect upon them, over and over again. I enjoy the mix of writing with pen, coloring with pencil, cutting and pasting with paper. As Giovanni Rucellai has said, the commonplace book genre is a “salad of many herbs.”
“Commonplace books,” as the Harvard University Library explains, “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.” Commonplace books differ from journals, notebooks, or scrapbooks:
Commonplace books have elements in common with journals/diaries, writer’s notebooks, and scrapbooks, but are their own distinctive genre. A commonplace book might include some of the commonplacer’s own thoughts and observations, but unlike a journal/diary, which typically consists of narrative entries written in chronological order, a commonplace book is non-narrative and non-chronological. Ideas are typically organized under headings rather than by date.
A commonplace book tends to be both less impulsive and less practical than a writer’s notebook. Entries into a commonplace book are usually made with some forethought—a particular pen, an attention to neatness—unlike a writer’s notebook in which fleeting thoughts are scribbled, often illegibly. A writer’s notebook is often kept with specific projects in mind, whereas commonplaced ideas are collected more for their intrinsic value—knowledge for knowledge’s sake—than any immediate practical purpose. (Toasted Cheese Literary Journal)
This blog is an effort to reclaim a lost commonplace book of my youth, one which covered all things ghost. Most of my blog posts are digital translations of entries in my ghost commonplace book, which I will share images of on my social media accounts. My commonplace book is mixed media, and contains a table of contents and glossary. I carry it around everywhere, because you never know when a ghost story will be told or ghost will appear.
- I have a piece in Dirge Magazine about commonplace books!
- A brief introduction via Wikipedia.
- The Harvard University Library Open Collections Program offers a vast collection of commonplace books for the public (starting from the 16th century).
- A good overview of the genre by Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.