During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one of the most important tools of a writer was a commonplace book (or CPB), though the practice continued long after the early modern period. A CPB would start as a blank book, and readers would then collect “‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference” under a variety of subject headings (OED, s.v. “commonplace book”). CPBs were something like diaries or journals, but instead of recording the events of the day or one’s emotions or feelings, they served as places to record quotations or summaries of information that one might use in future writings, along with reflections on those quotations and information. Famous people who have kept such books included Francis Bacon, John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, and Virginia Woolf.
Robert Darnton writes in the New York Review of Books (Dec. 21, 2000) that commonplace books both required and encouraged forms of reading that are different from most modern practices:
Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. 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. (47.20)
A page from John Milton's Commonplace Book. Source: The Getty.
Skills you will develop with this assignment:
Knowledge you will develop:
Page from a student commonplace book, Spring 2017.
Start by purchasing a blank book that you can use as a commonplace book. I recommend something relatively small; most students in past classes have preferred 5x9. You may want it to be completely blank, or you might want it lined or with graph paper. Some students prefer spiral bound books; others like hard bound or paper back. A few choose mini 3-ring binders. Some even make their own books, like the coptic-stitch book to the right. For those of you who are not so ambitious, I recommended Paperblanks or Moleskins, but there are plenty of other blank books producers out there.
This student organized chronologically. At the top of the page, she wrote the date, and below she recorded her quotations (color coordinated by topic).
This student organized topically. The topic is listed at the top of the page (and there's a handy sticky note to make each section easy to find). Quotations are separated by dotted lines.
You will need to keep an index of your book, either at the front or back.