Monday, March 7, 2016

March 7: Commonplace

I'm not a great keeper of date books and diaries – my appointments and to-do lists are scattered across half a dozen different date books and calendars between home and the office, and you're more likely to find my daily reflections scattered across the Internet (or archived in my inbox) than carefully compiled in a notebook. 

But something that I do enjoy is keeping a commonplace notebook. This is an off-again, on-again pursuit for me as well, but it's one that I find very satisfying. A commonplace book isn't a diary or a journal – it's not for tracking my days or working through problems – but rather a catch-all for all the bits in between. A diary can tell you where you went, when, and with whom; a journal can tell you what you did while you were there, who said what and what it all meant. But a commonplace book catches the rest of it, and in the end provides a much different portrait of a life over a period of time. 

This is a picture of two commonplace books. The one on the bottom of that pile saw action from 2005 to about 2009. Unlike a traditional commonplace book, which is filled mostly with quotations, mine is stuffed with all sorts of things: postcards and travel passes, itineraries and postage stamps, news stories, crosswords, poems torn from the New Yorker, quotes scribbled down from the radio. Recipes, menus and wine labels. Scraps of fabric and yarn. Things I'd forgotten about entirely until I opened it back up again, and then the memories came flooding back. The sunny Sunday we spent at the New York Public Library. The recipe for those Italian lemon cookies. That melancholy Elizabeth Bishop poem I love so much. The book weighs about 5 pounds.

The book on top – still new, and so a lightweight – is the commonplace book I started on Saturday. It's been a while since I kept one – most of the notebooks in my life right now are full of grocery lists and outlines for articles long since published and pulped – but I feel a period of growth and reflection coming on (or maybe it's just the optimism of incipient spring) and so it seemed like the right time to start anew.

When possible, I like to take a commonplace book with me when I'm out – the better to capture things I've overheard or jot down scenes I'd like to remember. I glue things in when I can, or jam them into the binding. When I'm travelling, I carry a little pencil case with a small pair of scissors and a glue stick and some washi tape to make that part easier, but I'm not into perfection. I think these should look a little bit scrappy – just like my life – so I'm ok with pasting things in with banana stickers and using empty sugar packets as bookmarks.

And so it begins again. I started with Ars Poetica #100: I Believe on the first page; I'm not sure what will come next. I'm looking forward to finding out.

(Do you keep a book like this? I'm curious!)


  1. Gosh, I envy you with archiving it all in one notebook. I have a larger notebook, a smaller notebook, a folder, and then sometimes I just take a photo of whatever and store it on my tablet. It may be time to relax my relax my organizational tendencies and have a nice, fat notebook!

  2. Yes! I do it almost the same as you, except I don't manage to tape or glue things in—those bits usually just float between pages and, hopefully, don't get lost. I love how others write about their "commonplace book" equivalents, and have collected these articles over the years. Yours is now on the list and I'll be featuring it in the sidebar of my newsletter next week (linking back to you here, of course). You might like this piece I came across years ago: xx

  3. No, although you have tempted me to start - it sounds such a lovely keepsake.

  4. I do! Or, at least I once did. And I would love to again. I'm about to go to Europe for a week so a perfect time to dig in, I think!

  5. such an amazing practice, I find commonplace books fascinating- have you read The Folded Clock? It's like a commonplace book, I really enjoyed it.


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