On The Commonplace Book: The Need To Keep Records of Words Not Ours

A great writer is a profesHaving Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Commonplace Booksional 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.

Having Decided To Stay - Bryana Johnson - Commonplace Book 3 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.”

8 thoughts on “On The Commonplace Book: The Need To Keep Records of Words Not Ours

    1. So glad you received the book and are enjoying it, Bonnie. The Hound of Heaven is one that I also have turned into a prayer at times. It was certainly birthed out of a great many prayers.

      Your students have a lot to look forward to if they are going to be reading Tennyson’s works! Of course, every young person (and older person) will appreciate different writers and for different reasons, but Tennyson happened to be one I really latched onto. One of the biggest reasons for this was that I bought a lovely and very old volume of his poetry at a little bookstore in Britain when I was twelve years old and read it on my own. 🙂 This sense of ownership really made me appreciate the book more and work harder to love it.

      I also feel that it’s important for students to study poets individually, rather than to read anthologies — even anthologies devoted to specific time periods. When students study just one poet at a time, reading their works every day (for just five or ten minutes) and only study three or four poets a year, they develop an appreciation for each poet’s style and can pick out his works in other places. They have learned to appreciate what is unique about the one man or woman and to cultivate an opinion about his or writing. It is this form of study that taught me to form relationships with individual poets and come to know them and it was this love for them that caused me to really incorporate poetry into my life.

  1. I posted this on my high school student’s fb for their journals and quoting. I got here from Linda Fay on the CM Carnival. AND I ordered your poetry book. SO excited to read it. SO pleased to meet you.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Bonnie! I’m glad you stumbled upon this page, and I hope your high school students will be inspired and maybe get some new ideas. I know that I am always motivated to incorporate good things into my life when I have first seen someone else do them in a way that works and that is winsome. I’m always looking for such examples. They go a long towards encouraging me to start new things and stick with them. 🙂

      I also hope you enjoy the book and that you’ll maybe share your thoughts on it when you’ve had a chance to read it.

      1. I love your poetry book. It came yesterday! Today I sent a copy of The Hound of Heaven to a friend . It gave me powerful words to pray for her daughter. I kept reading and rereading it. My students are getting ready to write poems on what we have lost in Modernity like chivalry, virtue, etc…. I want to introduce your work to them. We also will be doing the Romantic poets plus Queen Victoria’s Tennyson. I read your dedication !

  2. You’re in good company here; I know of quite a few authors who habitually copied out quotations, extracts, even whole books they liked. For example, a biographer of Dylan Thomas said this about his preparation for reading poetry on the radio:

    “I noticed one day a big pile of poems – Edward Thomas, Hardy, Ransom, Houseman, W.R.Rogers, Davies and others – all copied out in his careful hand. He said he never felt he knew a poem, what was in it, until he had done this.”

    I also think it’s better if it is specifically writing (as opposed to typing). The problem these days is that so much is typed, most people’s handwriting degenerates into a horrifying illegible scrawl, unfit to be seen by the light of day. (Well, mine has anyway, haha.) I was about to say you are lucky you have nice handwriting, but I guess like most things it isn’t luck: you just put the effort in!

    1. Thanks for your comment, William. I agree that it’s better as writing than as typing. There’s something to be said for the effort and the personalization that goes into writing. There’s also something to be said for hard copies. They are unique in that they exist in real life and cannot be duplicated with exaction at any point in history.

      I have put time into handwriting, but I can say with confidence that I have taken so much more out of it than I have ever put into it.

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