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Commonplace Books: When Memory Isn’t Enough

How do we cope with wanting to remember more than we think we can? The art of “the memory technique” (an elegant legacy from a more studious age) can help us securely and enjoyably pack away tremendous amounts of information for future use.

Some people’s demands for the volume of knowledge they want to incorporate into their thought and speech can exceed the time payment plan that the memory technique requires, however.

Previous generations—think the Italian Renaissance, Victorian Britain, and the New England/Walden Pond crowd—solved this problem with a commonplace book. A commonplace book is an empty journal that you fill with lines and passages from what you read, word for word. You can choose to adorn it with your own commentary if desired.  

The commonplace book is deceptively simple. It sounds like an obvious thing, and yet I’ve encountered relatively few people who maintain such a book in practice.

Since this idea seems to have been forgotten or rusted in the popular imagination, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some ideas, reactions, and practical considerations gained from having maintained one of my own for a few years now.

Anti-Procrastination at its Finest

When trying to track down fun or exemplary lines from books or news articles long after you’ve read them, there are moments when even Google can let you down. Maybe you’ve forgotten any specific and uncommon words you could otherwise use to pinpoint it in a search, or maybe you’ve forgotten who said it, or maybe, worst of all, it was from something not yet digitized and accessible.

This last scenario happened to me recently, trying to recall a passage from Shakespeare quoted in Rene Girard’s Theater of Envy, which I had read before starting my commonplace book—I couldn’t remember any specific words from the text itself, I’d forgotten when it took place, and Girard’s book had not been made digital.

Recording anything that strikes you as worthwhile, or as something you’d like to quote one day, will save you from the risk of losing it in the future.

Anchor Your Opinions in Fact

Friedrich Nietzsche is said to have quipped, “It’s hard enough for me to remember my opinions, without also having to remember my reasons for them!” A commonplace book will do precisely that for you.

Instead of risking a confusion of opinion with fact, or chancing becoming unmoored from hard truth on the basis of vague impressions, a commonplace book can keep track of your reasons for coming to certain conclusions.

Accordingly, make sure to pay attention to when you change your mind on a subject, so that you can record what’s persuaded you. This will enable you to give a correct and succinct explanation in the future to anyone who would like to know—and Future You may well be that person—why you hold some opinion or other.

This will also be an important avenue for reconsidering your opinions and changing your mind back, in the future, should more prepondering evidence emerge for the other side.

Jot Down a Lookup

No one is going to skim these pages and judge it against the MLA or Chicago standard, so you have freedom to cite as you choose. Freedom, however, does not mean neglecting to cite.

Far from just remembering a specific line, your book should serve as a way to confirm or verify what you’ve previously read to anyone else, so be sure to jot down enough of a reference that you know you will be able to find the resource in the future for any purpose it would have.

Pulchra pro libertate,” (“for the sake of beautiful liberty”) is a phrase I copied from a longer line, noting it came from “Aeneid, VI.821” (that’s Book VI, line 821). My quotes from Montesquieu come with Book and Chapter numbers, since his chapters are short enough that it is possible to pinpoint a verbatim quote.

Other lines I cite like this gem from Thomas Sowell: “Price controls are essentially lies about supply and demand.” Its reference is “Reader p. 70.” I have an anthology of Thomas Sowell and so even though I can’t tell you right now which work of his this line is from, I have enough to track it down if need be.

Written or Typed?

There are obvious advantages to having a typed commonplace book: being able to copy and paste text, even large passages; creating hyperlinks; locating it in Google drive or an email-to-self where a spilled glass of Guinness cannot obliterate years of patient collection.

Then again if you’ve found yourself swamped by the pressing demands of your job, errands, bills, banking, and social contact all in electronic form, it might be a welcome respite to have something different, something more emphatically at your service—where electricity is not required and Amazon can never possibly renege your collection—and something, maybe even, with more staying power.

Not to get into the extensive debates about writing and typing—I won’t pretend that a legitimate commonplace creation couldn’t be created and maintained either way. I’ve seen it done both ways, although maybe don’t call it a “book” if it’s only a Word file.

Know Where to Find It

Be kind to your commonplace book and give it a home. Whether that’s on your nightstand, on your kitchen counter, in a drawer in your cubicle, or (if you’re consistent this way) a pouch in your ever-present backpack, give it a place where it will belong.

You’ll be inclined to use it more if you can habituate yourself to its place, especially if its place is where you do most of your reading (an obvious candidate), or if it incorporates easily into your daily routine, or (ideally) both.

Make it easy to pay a visit to your commonplace book.

Re-reading is Pure Delight

The point of a commonplace book is to be able to revisit, word for word, the highlights of everything you’ve read.

Some of these lines you’ll probably wind up remembering anyway: “Fulfillment comes from production, not consumption,” wrote Ben Sasse in The Vanishing American Adult, and not a day has passed since I read that when I couldn’t have quoted it at you.

Same with, “Education should be about learning for children, and not jobs for adults,” as an incisive Wall Street Journal article of February 2017 put it.

Not so with other passages that I am now realizing I have forgotten entirely: “An individual’s level of self-control is perhaps the greatest predictor of happiness in life,” wrote Joy Pullmann at The Federalist a couple of years ago–these are wise words.

Similarly, the first quote in my book, words from a friend of mine (unorthodox, perhaps, but not unheard of material for a commonplace book), hadn’t visited my consciousness in far too long: “We may never find happiness, but we can always choose to be grateful.”

Past Me was eternally generous to give me the reminder. It rests in a little, bound, black book alongside lines that are funny, reflective, insightful, and grave, their sources spanning subject matter, genre, languages, and literal millennia. The collection is perfectly calibrated to what I consider worth reading, re-reading, and remembering.

All I have to do now is pick it up and read.

Author: Noah Diekemper

Noah Diekemper studied Latin and Mathematics at Hillsdale College (B.S.) and Data Science at Loyola University Maryland (M.S.). Motivated by a desire to preserve and share knowledge, he contributed to and has also been published in The Critic, The Federalist, Intercollegiate Review, and The Baltimore Sun.

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