I was reading another biography of one of my favorite people — Thomas Jefferson —when I ran across a reference to his “commonplace book.”  He was a great collector of useful bits of information and copied ideas and quotes he admired from his reading into a notebook. 

What is a commonplace book?  It is a notebook/scrapbook that can include everything from quotes, passages from books, poems, letters, photos, art work, memorabilia, programs from events or news articles.   It can be a writer’s idea book.  In Poland, a related style of journal – the “silva rerum” (a “forest of things”) – was a multi-generational family journal of the nobility.

The commonplace book was popular in Jefferson’s day, though it has been around for a long time…probably as long as people have been inspired by great ideas or admired a writer’s turn of phrase.  Obviously it was necessary in the days before copiers.

With new technology we may be on the crest of a revival of this concept.  Just recently I have read that iphones are being used to store short diary notes, complete with photos, voice recordings or video.  A multi-media techno-journal!

Apparently, what I created during my high school years—about when I was learning to type—was a “commonplace book.”  I didn’t know the name for it.  I began collecting quotes and poems under the title “Bau Pinh Yah.”  I said that title was from Tom Dooley and that it meant “everything from never mind to the hell with it,” but I find no reference to it online.  I still keep a commonplace book because I actually enjoy handwriting, a disappearing art form.   

By lifting quotes from the books I’ve read I don’t have to underline or highlight the books and ruin them for the next reader.  Personally I love to consider a thoughtful reader’s comments penciled in a book, but as a book dealer I totally understand how this destroys the value of the book.  You must accept that someday all your books will pass on to someone else.  I do confess that my very favorite books are defaced by my personal “marginalia,” as it is known in the book trade.

Commonplacing is another form of journaling that appeals to a distinct personality, a person who enjoys collecting and savoring life’s little treasures.  It should be a pleasure for others to read some day as you are recording the very best things you have found during your intellectual serendipity.


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