Commonplace Books: A Tool for Writers and Teachers

As I’m gearing up for the school year to begin, I’ve been doing my summer reading assignments.  First, I read Moying Li’s Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution, which is required reading for rising seventh and eighth graders, and then I slowly made my way through the required reading for middle school teachers: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

On the surface, these two books don’t have much in common.  The first is a memoir written primarily for young readers; the second is an academic tome that touches on the history of technology, the evolution of reading and memory, and the science of the human brain.  But I found a surprising point of connection between the two: the idea of commonplace books.

In Snow Falling in Spring, Moying Li’s education has been disrupted by political chaos.  She’s seen her teachers and relatives tortured, and she’s had to give up her dream of pursuing higher education to perform the job she’s been assigned.  Amidst all this chaos, she finds comfort by waking up at dawn each day to walk around a park while reading out loud from a makeshift textbook.  Because she no longer has regular access to books, she has to be creative if she wants to continue her learning.  She explains, “I made up my own textbook with loose-leaf papers—filled with passages copied from my favorite authors.”

In The Shallows, in a chapter about memory, Nicholas Carr describes commonplace books, which sound a lot like Moying Li’s makeshift textbook.  The Dutch humanist Erasmus proposed the idea of commonplace books in 1512.  He encouraged students to keep a notebook, divided by subject, and copy out striking passages from their reading.  He thought of these passages as “kinds of flowers,” picked from books and then cultivated in an individual’s memory.  (How lovely is that?)  These “commonplace” notebooks allowed students to individualize their education, because each person’s notebook was unique, and they helped students to synthesize what they’d learned.

I sometimes copy out quotes from books I read, but rarely in the same place, and I often incorporate my own commentary, too.  But I like the idea of a physical notebook, divided into sections, in which I could pull together ideas, beautiful language, and maybe even photographs or photocopied images from different sources (or sketches, if I were at all artistic).  I might have a section for craft books, a section for teaching ideas, and a section for fiction, but other people could have very different sections in their commonplace books.  I’m not sure I trust myself to walk while reading, as Moying Li did, and I’d be a little embarrassed to have people hear me reading aloud to myself while strolling even if I could stay on my feet.  But I might like to read through my commonplace book before taking a meditative walk, and I like the idea of encouraging students today to make their own commonplace notebooks, just as their Renaissance counterparts once did.

What do you think?  How could you see using commonplace books with students, or how might you set up your own? (Also, thanks to my friend and colleague Dan for telling me about commonplace books in the first place, so that I paid extra attention to them while doing my summer reading homework.)

2 thoughts on “Commonplace Books: A Tool for Writers and Teachers

  1. Mary Pleiss says:

    Hi Laurie! *waves*
    I actually keep a commonplace book, though it’s not nearly as organized as the one you’re proposing. I started with a blank notebook and glued in pictures and quotes from magazines, and now when I stumble across something I like, I write it on a page where it seems to fit. It’s full of thoughts and lines I want to hold on to, or that make me laugh or think. My sister, who’s a professor of Early British Lit at a small college, is going to have her students in one freshman class make commonplace books this semester. They’ll write down quotes from the assigned texts and do some guided analysis; she’s preparing them to write literary criticism in a fairly gentle way.

  2. laurielmorrison says:

    Hi Mary! The commonplace book that you keep sounds wonderful, and I love your sister’s idea of using commonplace books to guide students into doing literary analysis. I like the less structured way you describe setting your book up, too. It doesn’t seem necessary to use different sections in the way Erasmus seems to have suggested. I sort of liked the idea only because I thought it might be easier for me to find a quote or image if I was looking for it, but maybe I will give my students the option of using sections and the option of adding things in where they fit, as you described, and maybe I’ll experiment with incorporating some guided analysis the way your sister is planning to do. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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