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The Commonplace Book

In: Showing my Work

Earlier this month, I read this article by Shane Parrish at Farnam Street about the commonplace book and, since then, I have been in love with the whole idea. But let me tell you why. While I’ve definitely stopped believing in the inspiration fairy, I do still find myself using Pinterest to pin websites, interactions, courses, etc. that I find particularly interesting for inspiration and reference later. That’s fine and it’s something I definitely encourage others to do. However, lately I’ve been struck with the need to do more than just collect interesting things. I believe that I need to recapture some of my college days and think much more critically about the things I create and about the things I read and see and like. The commonplace book meets me precisely at this intersection. While commonplace books were used in the middle ages as a way to enhance memory (think flash cards), philosopher John Locke “saw commonplace books, not as a means to improve memory but as an aid to assist recollection of complex information gathered over years from multidisciplinary subjects.” Parrish quotes Robert Darnton’s essay, Extraordinary Commonplaces:

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.

– Robert Darnton, Extraordinary Commonplaces

Parrish continues, “Common place books are thus to be mined for information, not only on how people thought but also as a source of creativity.” As I think about this, it really speaks to my desire to do more than just consume information. I’ve noticed how, even when reading a book, aside from those books that I really just savor, I tend to read the story and close the covers without ever thinking deeply about what I read. I don’t read critically. I think it’s important to reintroduce to myself, in fiction, yes, but perhaps more importantly in the non-fiction I read. I want to do a better job of wrestling with ideas. Writing down my response and reflection to a video or a passage in an article is a big step in the right direction. Of course, the other benefit of the commonplace book is that, through taking the time to document and reflect on ideas I come across, I also give myself those sources of creativity. By using writing down passages, collecting videos, collecting images, I give myself the opportunity to do what Einstein called combinatorial play. I can begin to combine these ideas into something new. I can make new connections across ideas, across books and images and video. That is exactly my aim in exploring more of a T-shape. I’ve started keeping my own commonplace tumblr at Multitude of Things. I’d be very interested to know if any of you have anything like this. A notebook? A blog? Let me know in the comments.