Commonplace Books

A couple of weeks ago, when out for a few beers with some friends, my mate Kai and I got into a discussion about how we use our respective RSS Readers.

Teleportation just ain't what it used to be

— this is the only picture of Kai that is ever worth using, ever –

The crux of the conversation came down to one thing: folders – Kai uses them, I don’t. Kai’s point was that he likes to choose what format to consume and when. For example, he may opt to read long-form content in the morning, and prefer visual / illustrative stimulation in the afternoon. A point that I both understand and recognise.

However, I prefer reading everything at random. It’s a habit I’ve kept for a long time but it’s something that’s recently been re-enforced by learning about the origins of the commonplace book, and its place in both history and the creation of serendipitous innovation.

What do I mean? Well…

In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, Stephen Johnson writes:

“Darwin’s notebooks lie at the tail end of a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England: the practice of maintaining a “commonplace” book. Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book.

The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.

There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to ‘lay up’ a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.”


That, believe it or not, is what historians mark as one of the ways Darwin was able to come to his theory of evolution (he famously had no ‘EUREKA!’ moment, it came to him slowly – over months) and that, believe it or not, is exactly how I feel about my RSS.

It’s a big jump – from understanding nature’s beginnings to reading internet ponderings mixed in pictures of lolcats – but that’s how I see it.

Basically, you should use RSS. And if you don’t, why not try starting a commonplace book? I had one in school, and it was awesome. In fact, I think I still have it somewhere…


Commonplace book links of note

The Commonplace Book – Brett Bolkowy

The Ecology of Thought – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Good Ideas and Notebooks – EVSC


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Author: James Whatley

Chief Strategy Officer in adland. I got ❤️ for writing, gaming, and figuring stuff out. I'm @whatleydude pretty much everywhere that matters. Nice to meet you x

5 thoughts on “Commonplace Books”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this as well… I have folders for the same reasons, but I do find that limiting sometimes because I’m only consuming things I’m already interested in. That’s what I like about magazines and newspapers – that they expose me to everything, and maybe an image pulls me into an article, something that would rarely happen online.

    Anyhow, as always, love the G Reader chatter 🙂

    James Reply:

    I miss the old Google Reader for the way it interspersed my subscribed content with other peoples’ shared items. That was awesome.

    But yeah: we surf the internet, .


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