A few years ago, as I was beginning my writing career, I attempted to tell a friend about a book I’d been reading. The book was fundamentally changing the way I viewed myself and the world, but as I tried to explain it to him, my mind was bouncing all over the place and I couldn’t articulate what the book had said or why it was so meaningful to me.
"Must be one helluva book," my friend mocked me while slow-clapping. I realized in that moment that I needed a place to write down and process my favorite parts of the pieces I was reading. In that way, I could record what stood out to me and revisit it at any point with the hope of internalizing the lessons and implementing them into my own life. My friend recommended Evernote.
A system quickly began to take shape. As an avid reader, I’ve always liked to highlight interesting ideas or meaningful quotes in books, write in the margins to articulate why they’re important and how they might connect to other ideas, and mark the place with a Post-it note. Whenever I finish a book, I let it sit for about a week: I want the ideas to simmer and digest slowly. A week later, I open the book to the first page, and start transcribing quotes/notes into Evernote.
This has become my commonplace book.
What Is a Commonplace Book?
A commonplace book is a dedicated place (be it a physical notebook or a digital space like Evernote) to record and keep quotes, ideas, aspirations, thoughts, and anything else that might be meaningful for future reflection.
Author Ryan Holiday said it best in his article showcasing his notecard system:
"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."
Author Steven Johnson gave a lecture at Colombia University titled "The Glass Box and the Commonplace Book" and talked about the history of this system:
"Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing.”
Johnson described a commonplace book, in the words of one scholar, as a place to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”
Let me explain how this method has worked for me.
This is what my commonplace book currently looks like. The column on the left lists my recent themes: the overarching categories that encompass the knowledge that I gather. To the right is the content of the notes.
I keep themes general for a reason, but often over time, the themes expand to encompass lots of correlating ideas. Depending on how I want to organize certain ideas, I can take specific insights in a general theme and make sub-categories or sub-notes.
For example, if I have a note under Career and, for some reason, there is a lot of insight into resume writing, I’ll create a separate note titled "Resume." I have a handful of ideas on this in my Career note, but I keep it in that note because I want to reduce the amount of overlap, and Evernote has a great search feature.
To stay meticulously organized and reduce overlap, I started writing two to three sentences before each transcribed note. This provides context into why the quote is meaningful and serves as a primer for me to understand the context in which this statement was said. If I need to know more, I know which book or article it's from and what page.
Notes in Evernote get structured by date (whichever you touched last). I can scroll all the way down and look at notes that haven't been touched in years. Why? Is it because I'm not reading or watching essays/books/videos on this topic or is it a reflection of my inability to spot bits of knowledge and capture them in my commonplace book? It's quite possible that a book on positive psychology may mention a fascinating insight about music—why didn't I see it as meaningful?
I realized this in my early years when I had a note on Philosophy but only 3-4 tidbits of wisdom. This encouraged me to buy books out of my comfort zone and be willing to dig into subjects that I'm not experienced in. Now I have endless notes on Philosophy, spanning different thinkers and schools of thought.
How It Supplements Your Work
Let's say I'm writing an essay and the concept of narrative or design is a dot worth connecting. I can search my commonplace book for any keywords that were used in a quote, story, metaphor, etc. This allows me to see which bits of knowledge I can cross-pollinate with various domains and thinkers.
If I'm stuck, these perspectives also prime my thinking. Maybe I wasn't considering anthropology or physics or eastern philosophy—by searching for keywords and finding seemingly unrelated connections, it opens up a whole new world of insight and allows me to play with ideas.
As this note that I show above on Human Nature gets richer, I can compare and contrast insights about human nature from a variety of professions, cultures, and eras; this diversifies the ways in which I can search and use this information. The geologist said X, the philosopher said Y, the anthropologist or scientist said Z. It's fascinating to see a pattern of knowledge on a topic, especially when it comes from different backgrounds; there must be an underlying fundamental truth.
Another benefit comes from physically copying information. By typing it manually into my commonplace book, I get to experience what it's like to write a beautiful sentence. I get to re-create the cadence, rhythm, tone, and flow. I get to feel what it's like to write something that elicits goosebumps or sets off fireworks in my head. I want to know what *boom* writing feels like so I can emulate it someday.
On a really personal note, I was going through a break-up once and randomly clicked on my note on Flipping Adversity. In this note I have stories, metaphors, and quotes on the practice of clear perception. Reading through all the different perspectives and practices, spanning a diverse range of cultures, philosophers, and eras, I found comfort in being able to use this painful situation as a catalyst for growth. My heart was still hurting, but I was able to think with clarity because the wisdom that I cherished and found meaningful guided me.
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“Don’t just say you have read books," said the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. "Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”
It's invigorating to grow your commonplace book—it's a tangible reflection of how you're nurturing your mind, the subjects you're passionate about, and also the subjects that you're ignoring entirely.
Knowledge is the accumulation of information; wisdom is knowing how to apply it. A commonplace book champions both.