“I am a diary.”
⸺ Tom Phillips, “Humument.”
In the Renaissance, many students were taught to create and compile their own handcrafted notebooks, called “commonplace books,” used for collecting fragments of what they read. Students filled their commonplace books with inspiring turns of phrases, significant concepts, passages and quotations that resonated with them. Compiling commonplace books helped students to naturalize the insights discovered in books and provided them with an invaluable resource to draw upon for later prose, rhetorical exercises or dinner party jokes.
Commonplace books functioned like personal archives of one’s readerly self, material spaces for self-reflection and self-discovery. Those who kept commonplaces could reflect upon their own intellectual and creative explorations, as well as chart the process of cultivating oneself alongside books, texts and other meaningful encounters with language. More than repositories for information, these books also encouraged a particular “method of reading” the contents of books.
Commonplacing was a method of reading by extraction: It involved extracting bits and pieces from a book’s context and pasting them into the yellowed pages of commonplaces, within which emerged a more personalized, self-reflective context. Commonplacing nourished a reader’s personal engagement with texts by creating a space to explore the subjective experience of reading and interpreting language. It emphasized the significance of readers’ interpretations and reactions to a text and how these perspectives might contribute to others’ words and ideas.
Most commonplaces were loosely organized by “literary topoi,” general topics and themes. Some commonplaces were dutifully formatted. John Locke famously constructed a systematic index for his commonplace book to optimize the accessibility of his entries. He recorded topics alphabetically so that “Be” would, for example, signify quotes on “Beauty, Belief; Beneficence…” The system was useful, and Locke’s commonplace book became so significant to his work that he wrote a treatise on how he made it, giving others the tools to redesign and emulate Locke’s commonplace for themselves.
But there were innumerable ways to design a commonplace book. We do not all think, read or learn in the same way, and our note-taking strategies often reflect the different ways our brains work. Like contemporary journals and notebooks, commonplaces were deeply personal and expressive. By gathering, assembling and mending together fragments, compilers codified their own commonplaces as they composed and shaped them.
While mostly out of use today, commonplacing still shares many characteristics with contemporary note-taking practices. Material and digital tools — Pinterest boards, Tumblr profiles, Moleskin journals and digital note-taking apps such as Notion — all tug at the very human desire to make sense of ourselves, compile and gather knowledge into textual reservoirs of who we are — who we might become — in our messy, fragmented encounters with the world.
By gathering, assembling and mending
together fragments, compilers codified
their own commonplaces as they
composed and shaped them.
Unlike the eager scholars of the Renaissance, my commonplaces are not bound, but litter all over. Stacked over my desk are piles of journals with torn-out, dog-eared, blank or missing pages. Some are bloated with sloppy sketches, pasted photographs and stickers that I think are cute, while others are delicately etched with handwritten poetry and prose.
Online, I outsource my commonplaces to the cloud, where they disperse and proliferate haphazardly in the form of bookmarks, Notion databases and endless clusters of open, unmarked tabs. It is unclear why I sometimes write to my notes app in French or in English, or why the afterthought “Celeb hotties” sits next to the note, somewhat abbreviated for clarity: “There is no reality other than the simulacrum/simulation world order, wherein fictional representations have become so convincing that no one can point to what is or is not real — See: Borges.”
Growing up, my mom shared the saying, “If it isn’t in the scrapbook, it didn’t happen.” The maxim was so popular in the Y2K era of scrapbooking and blogging that it was printed onto stickers and decals and pasted onto the back sides of SUVs. Scrapbooks were more like visual diaries than notebooks or journals. They were driven by a desire to capture the reality of the present moment, often to etch it into family histories and mark the significant events of our lives.
Back then, I thought little of my mom’s scrapbooking proverb; now that I can feel my childhood memories slowly fading away, those words hold more weight. My mom’s scrapbooks recorded things about myself that I should have forgotten by now without the reminder of pictures and journal entries. Closing my eyes, I can see the pigtails I wore at four years old, remember how much I hated the Princess Belle costume my parents bought me for my sixth Halloween and feel the laminated cover of my Lisa Frank notebook that I carried with me to Michoacán where I met my family for the first time.
But neither scrapbooks nor commonplaces are very successful at recording reality as it happens. Past moments might have been inscribed in the here and now, but when I revisit them in their narrated form, I find myself reshaping or reorienting my memories rather than revisiting them in their preserved state.
Even when I jot down a thought in my notebook, something about the choice to impress one memory onto paper, as opposed to all the others, seems to disrupt it, make it change. The memory in its natural, ephemeral movement isn’t lost, but it dances somewhere else, entering into its transient afterlives.
Maybe this habit of externalizing my thoughts someplace outside of my scattered brain has been inherited from a literary or ideological tradition of knowing — or hoping to know — oneself by way of drawing an identity into existence, material, digital or otherwise.
When I ask myself why I write (to, for and about myself), I echo Joan Didion, when she wrote in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” that “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.”
Some of my friends do not share the “impulse to write things down,” which Joan Didion described as a “peculiarly compulsive one” that can’t be explained by reason. Writing, collecting and note-taking are just this thing that I do. The impulse isn’t driven by some desire to store knowledge, such as John Locke’s commonplace book, which seems to be born from a “different impulse entirely.”
I sometimes look at those carefully crafted archives with wonder and some envy, too. But my thoughts are too fragmented for that kind of work. I don’t have the patience to keep a diary dated and updated or produce any real “record” of my life. My commonplaces are as rhizomatic as I am. My thoughts and ideas flow and emerge in unpredictable patterns, taking on new roots at will.
My commonplaces are as rhizomatic as I am.
My thoughts and ideas flow and emerge in
unpredictable patterns, taking on
new roots at will.
Commonplaces that are more familiar to me are those that make messy yet ambitious “attempts” to create something new. These are the boundless kinds of attempts Michel de Montaigne put into his “Essais,” which had no definite beginning or end.
Montaigne compiled his “Essais” for more than two decades, from 1570 to 1592, the year of his death. It was a work in progress, a method of living with one’s commonplaces by drawing on, expanding upon and sitting in conversation with one’s collections of personal reflections. Connections, ideas and thoughts climbed out from the continual, limitless interplay of reading and writing.
On the title page of Montaigne’s revised manuscript, he likened his “Essais” to a growing child. Borrowing a half-verse from Virgil, he sketched the final epigraph for his project: “viresque acquirit eundo,” it gains strength as it goes.
When I flip through the material residue of my journals, I perceive myself as if I am a reader of that “me” who wrote it and thereafter went missing, however recent or long ago. I do not remember what I meant to say when I wrote down, five or six years ago in my notebook, “I am living underground, burrowing close to an absent source.”
It is tenuous to remember the “me” who wrote that, the experiential “me” who was some years younger than who lives as “me” now. Were those my words, were they borrowed? Do they change as I grow? Me, the writer, recedes and becomes more like that “absent source,” shaped by the living someone who burrows close.
Writing turns me into a reader of myself. And reading…