A great writer is a professional reader. The man who strings words that everyone reads, the story-smith who compiles fascinating fictions, the bard who sings the language that wakes us to wonder, these are all mighty borrowers, mighty collage artists, mighty rememberers. They draw from the well of what has been said, to say what has not been said. Indeed, they can do no other. For we are poor and weak creatures when we have only our own minds to entertain us.
All great words spring from other great words. This is a statement we can trace in a backward glance through the pages of history to the first Word that called everything else into being, to the Word that was, in the beginning. Nothing comes from nothing.
This truth about the nature of language and writing gives rise to another truth, which is that really passionate readers have a great need to keep records of the most significant and memorable passages and statements made by the authors whose works they explore. It is not enough to merely consider for a moment, to allow ourselves to be shaken by the staggering thoughts we encounter and then to close the book on them and leave with only a vague and dusty recollection of what was said. This is inadequate. We need a ledger, a place to compile the words that change our lives line by line and day by day.
The commonplace book is a tool that was widely used by readers for centuries (until the last one: a century in which we received many new things all at once, and let many irreplaceably good things go.) It is a journal for the words we have not written, a notebook for taking note of the magnificent.
The term, ‘commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin ‘locus communis’ which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. In this original sense, commonplace books were collections of such sayings.
The commonplace book can be a leather-bound art journal or a cheap, college-ruled composition book. It can be a work of art in itself or merely a collection of scribbled quotations. However, I believe that putting in the time to make the collection a pleasure to peruse is by far the more effective of these options. I know that for my own part I am more likely to want to come back to and read over something that is well-constructed and lovely than something untidy and hastily thrown together. And the commonplace book is something to come back to again and again and again.
When I started my new commonplace book, I chose to use an art journal with 90 lb paper and a 0.5 m wet ink pens. These materials have worked very well for me, providing an ideal writing space that is durable and elegant, but almost anything will work as well or better given a determined reader. The most important thing is to begin.
In addition to being a place to gather the words of others, the commonplace book also serves as an excellent collection of writing to memorize. I copy into a journal that is small enough to fit in a handbag and take it with me anytime I think I am likely to be alone. Then I can take it out and go over it. This record is a way that we interact with literature, that we seize hold of it and make it our own, that we incorporate it into our lives, that it becomes a seed of greatness – or, in the words of Charlotte Mason, “a living power in our minds.”