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Commonplace Book

A commonplace book is an informal collection of notes, information, recipes, aphorisms, facts, and more. These books are personal and kept by individuals for their own purposes.

While commonplace books were most popular during the Renaissance, there are those, mostly authors and creators, who keep these notebooks today. They provide writers with a place to compile ideas, keep pieces of information they don’t want to forget, and more. 

Commonplace Book definition and examples

Commonplace Book Definition

A commonplace book is a collection of knowledge compiled by one person. The writer will collect pieces of information through the form of notes, adages, proverbs, maxims, letters, poems, tables, recipes, and more.

These books have been kept since antiquity and were at their most popular during the Renaissance. There are a few examples of commonplace books throughout history that readers can explore. These were kept by well-known writers like Francis Bacon, John Milton, and E.M. Forester. 

Examples of a Commonplace Book 

Virginia Woolf’s Notebooks 

Within Virginia Woolf’s notebooks, she drafted her essays and novels, including The Waves, finished in 1931. Her notebooks are today part of The New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. Today, readers can buy reproductions of her notebooks and read them as Woolf wrote them. 

Throughout, readers can explore her insight into her life, her depression, and the development of her stream-of-consciousness narrative style. Here is a quote from one of her diary entries: 

If one is to deal with people on a large scale and say what one thinks, how can one avoid melancholy? I don’t admit to being hopeless, though: only the spectacle is a profoundly strange one; and as the current answers don’t do, one has to grope for a new one, and the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in their place, is a sad one.

She often wrote about her experiences with the people around her and her perceptions of herself and her work. For example, in one passage, she penned: “My mind turned by anxiety, or other cause, from its scrutiny of blank paper, is like a lost child–wandering the house, sitting on the bottom step to cry.”

The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies by Francis Bacon 

This commonplace book was discovered in the nineteenth century. In it, readers can discover more than 1,000 metaphors, proverbs, aphorisms, and more. Many of these are original, and many more were taken from classical authors like Horace and Seneca. They are dated to around 1594. 

A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W.H. Auden

This lesser-known commonplace book was compiled by Auden. It was published in 1970 and included passages and quotations from other authors. These are organized by topic. According to Kirkus Reviews, Auden considered the book a kind of autobiography

Read W.H. Auden’s poetry.

A Commonplace Book by H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft’s commonplace book is a collection of 221 entries and ideas for characters and stories. They were compiled, beginning in 1919 until his death. Here are a few of the entries: 

1. Demophon shivered when the sun shone upon him. (Lover of darkness = ignorance.)

2. Inhabitants of Zinge, over whom the star Canopus rises every night, are always gay and without sorrow. [x]

3. The shores of Attica respond in song to the waves of the Aegean. [x]

4. Horror Story Man dreams of falling—found on floor mangled as tho’ from falling from a vast height. [x]

5. Narrator walks along unfamiliar country road,—comes to strange region of the unreal.

Most of these are suggestions for pilot ideas, images, or dreams. The author looks includes information about everyday life, his own dreams, things he read. Lovecraft also notes “idle conceptions” and “casual incidents” listed. One of the longer entries reads: 

Dream of ancient castle stairs—sleeping guards—narrow window—battle on plain between men of England and men of yellow tabards with red dragons. Leader of English challenges leader of foe to single combat. They fight. Foe unhelmeted, but there is no head revealed. Whole army of foe fades into mist, and watcher finds himself to be the English knight on the plain, mounted. Looks at castle, and sees a peculiar concentration of fantastic clouds over the highest battlements.

Explore H.P Lovecraft’s poetry

How to Keep a Commonplace Book

Keeping a commonplace book is a fairly easy pursuit. It can be composed of anything the author wants. There is no right or wrong way to keep one. But, a few suggestions in regard to what one you might want to write down can be helpful. 

Perhaps the easiest way to keep a commonplace book is to use a notebook. The writer can fill it with commonplace entires. There is less flexibility than there is with some other methods, but notebooks do ensure that all the ideas are kept in one place, and nothing is lost. The writer might choose to list out topics and note down ideas or glue/tape in things they find throughout their readings. 

Another way is to keep notecards. These can be rearranged easily, allowing the writer to consider new ideas next to older ones. But, there is always the possibility of losing track of the individual note cards and perhaps a very important thought or idea. 

Writers might also try to keep a commonplace book digitally. This can allow for the benefits of both individual note cards and notebooks. But, it doesn’t allow for a hands-on approach, something that many writers are looking for. 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Epistolary: a book made up of a series of documents, usually letters, diary entries, or newspaper clippings.
  • Abstract Diction: occurs when the poet wants to express something ephemeral, or ungraspable.
  • Colloquial Diction: is conversational in nature and can be seen through the use of informal words that represent a specific place or time.
  • Slang Diction: contains words that are very specific to a region and time, and have been recently coined.
  • Stream of Consciousness: a style of writing in which thoughts are conveyed without a filter or clear punctuation.

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