What is a "commonplace book"?
From the Wikipedia page for "Commonplace book":
Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. Such books are essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they have learned. Each commonplace book is unique to its creator's particular interests.
In my own terms I define it as so: a repository of non-perishable things (ideas, suggestions, quotes, stories, models, etc.) which are of personal significance and utility to the author.
In the article that inspired me to begin keeping a commons, Ryan Holiday describes the sort of people who keep them:
Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.
That should give you a good idea of what a commons is, and why I, and many others, keep one. But it doesn't really describe the point of a commons. I shall attempt that now:
Commonplace books are kind of like personal libraries. You can keep one in order to show it your friends and inspire awe and reverence in people who visit your home. But unfortunately, commonplace books, unlike personal libraries containing thousands of books, typically don't draw many gasps or complements. So their use is restricted to people who see them as means to an ends. As a smaller part of a bigger picture. The people who keep a commonplace book understand that the point of a commons is to use it to better your life.
A commons can be used to help you make decisions, to help you think deeper about a topic, to keep a diverse array of problem solving and thinking tools, to provide guidance in the building and development of relationships. It can function as a mentor, or as a rock which keeps you grounded and steady when everything around you is spinning out of control.
I hope I've given an adequate description of what a commons is, who keeps them, and why. Now, I want to talk about where they fit in.
The traditional pathway for the acquisition of knowledge and wisdom goes something like this:
The commons is a tool to be deployed in stages two and three. By deciding what to enter into the commons (and what not to), you are forced to think wider and deeper about the material you're handling. This increased contact and immersion naturally increases the absorption of what you've learned.
And once it's entered into the commons, the material is something that can be referred back to when the relevant situations arise, or it can be browsed and reflected upon, in order to keep the wheels of thought lubricated and spinning.
Now, I want to move on to a less conceptual discussion of commonplace books. I want to show you how I personally set up and use mine. But before I show you the current iteration of my commons, I need to describe what I used to do.
As I said in the outline on the Projects page, I used to keep a physical commons; I used the method Ryan Holiday picked up from Robert Greene. Here I think pictures will do a better job than words.
These are the 4x6 cards used to record quotes, ideas and questions. I usually have several hundred lying around.
This is an example of a card containing a direct quotation from a book. As you can see, I record the title of the book and the page number in the top left, the category it goes into in the top right, and the content goes onto the main body of the card. In this case, it's a quote from Jay Griffith's A Sideways Look at Time: "Modernity has chosen to count time, rather than cherish it." I've opted to put it in the "mindfulness" section of my commons.
This is an example of a quote containing a question or independent idea. I use the same layout, except in this case, the idea isn't a response to or derived from any particular source, so the top left stays blank. This particular card contains the rather macabre question, "Can technological development outpace the growing consequences of human folly?" I left it unanswered.
This is where individual cards end up: in a cropper hopper. Each box can hold roughly two thousand cards. This particular box contains cards loosely organised around the theme of "strategy". Some of the categories include offensive, defensive, team, and unconventional strategy. There's sections on the OODA loop, on entrepreneurship, on wealth, on business, as well as a collection of rule-sets or principles picked up from Robert Greene, Saul Alinsky and others.
I have six such boxes, probably totaling between eight and ten thousand individual cards. The boxes include "strategy", "stoicism and practical philosophy" and "meta-projects".
As you can see, I committed to this system. I put in a lot of time and energy to maintain and grow it. But now, I've decided to abandon it, or more accurately, to evolve it into a format that better aligns with my intentions and purposes.
Why? Well, not because it was too difficult or took too long to maintain. In fact, quite the reverse. The inefficiency and the slowness of the system is something I like and intend to preserve. Such a methodology forces me to slow down and spend time with the material I'm working and thinking about. It compels me to build a stronger relationship with what I read and learn.
The main reason has to do with portability and ease of access. When I go away, I can't take my commons with me. I can't flick through it when I'm out and about. If I want a particular idea from a particular book, it takes a while to explore and find what I'm looking for.
I needed a new type of repository, a commons system which;
- Is portable.
- Is easily accessible.
- Is simple to modify and update.
- Is intuitive to search through and navigate.
- But still has a certain measure of inefficiency and slowness built in.
This is what I came up with.
It's not Evernote. It's not OneDrive. It's not any app or system or program that is dependent on a third party. Why? One of my favourite maxims is this: the only certainty in life is that the fragile will break. I don't know how robust all these companies are and how long they'll be around. I also don't trust them. I mean, I'm sure they have the best of intentions. But I know that they don't care about my commons as much as I do. And I don't want to spend years, decades, inputting information into an app or system that can either go out of business or lose my data irretrievably.
So I don't like handwritten index cards because they're too inflexible for me, and I want a digital version, but not one tied to any particular company, app or system. So what's the answer?
Text files are one of the most fundamental file formats out there, alongside binary files. They're simple, durable (what is basic is usually the most durable), easy and low-cost to create, portable across practically every operating system, searchable, modifiable, and capable of being usurped for an almost infinite number of other uses. They tick all the boxes.
But after deciding to use .txt files, I had to figure out exactly how to use them. That didn't take long. And once again, it's probably easier to describe with pictures, or screenshots in this case.
The first step was to create a "meta" file. It's sole purpose was to define two things: first, how I will structure the content of each file, and second, how I will name each file. These are the two key elements that will determine the basic functionality of the commons.
After that's been thought about and decided upon, the next thing is to decide where to keep them. That's easy. Keep them all in one folder.
Now, a problem arises. How can I look through the commons without having to individually open and close each file? I use Windows, and there's a simple fix for this: enable the preview pane. As .txt files are tiny, and the commons is going to be mostly made up of short excerpts and ideas, the files load quickly and can be viewed in their entirety in the preview pane.
That's great when the commons is small. But what if the commons is huge, composed of tens of thousands of .txt files, and I need to find a quote from a specific author?
Well first, that is aided by how I structure the content and file names. But however you do it, it's worth keeping this in mind: you can only search what you write down. So if I include the author's name in either the content or file name, I can find it later by conducting a simple search. And this works for specific words, specific categories, notes on a particular author or book, whatever.
For example, I searched for notes on "writing".
And what about making additions to the commons? That's simple as well. I set my laptop up with the "meta-commons" file displaying on one side, and a blank entry on the other.
Once that's set up, I enter the content according to the directions in the meta file displayed alongside, and hit "ctrl + s" to save it with the decided upon structure. If it is to be filed in multiple categories, I simply save it with a slightly modified file name using the "save as" option.
After I've saved it, I hit "ctrl + n" to open a new window and begin inputting the next idea, quote or story into the commons.
And that, friend, is where I shall end.
I've described what a commons or commonplace book is, who uses them, why, and where they fit into a life. I've detailed what I used to do, why I left it behind, and why I do what I do now.
My hope, as with all the other projects I've listed, is that whilst reading this, you come across some nugget—either meaningful or marginal—that you can put to use. And my deeper hope is that, by sharing how I accumulate and manage my own commons, I will encourage others to do the same.