Friday, October 23, 2020

Commonplace Book or Journal


I first heard the term "commonplace book" when I was reading the works of Charlotte M. Mason in preparation for homeschooling my children.  In Charlotte Mason's schools, her students kept commonplace books in high school.  Before that age, children did copywork.  That is, they copied passages from the books they were reading.  This began as a way to practice handwriting.  But it accomplished so much more.  The children internalized great writing, learned sentence structure, spelling, punctuation and grammar without even trying.  I used this method with my own children through all of their years of homeschooling.  I was amazed at the results.  They are both excellent writers.  Somewhere along the way I began to keep my own journal of quotes that I liked from books I was reading.  Sometimes I write notes about what I am reading.  I have also written quotes and notes from podcasts or videos or lectures.  My journals are not strictly commonplace books, but for this post I will concentrate on that aspect.  

From:  Formation of Character by Charlotte M. Mason

"It is very helpful to read with a commonplace book or reading-diary, in which to put down any striking thought in your author, or your own impression of the work, or any part of it; but not summaries of facts.  Such a diary, carefully kept through life, should be exceedingly interesting as containing the intellectual history of the writer; besides we never forget the book that we have made extracts from, and of which we have taken the trouble to write a short review."

Here is an example of what a page in my journal looks like.  While I am reading I use Post-it flags to mark passages that I like.  I usually wait until I have finished the book to copy the passages into my journal.  I don't like to disrupt the flow of my reading to stop and copy a passage.  Also, sometimes after I have finished the book and reread the marked passages, I decide not to copy something I had marked. 

Here are some more examples:

You can see in some of the pictures that there are other things in my journal as well.  I will cover that in another post.  

Susan Wise Bauer in The Well-Educated Mind includes some information on commonplace books:

"Occasionally, though, commonplace books took on a more personalized form.  The authors carried them around and jotted in them at odd moments during the day.  The commonplace books gathered reflections, scraps of original verse and other creative writing, summaries of books read, as well as the de rigeur bits of copied information.  They became artificial memories."

She calls the journals "self-education journals".

"The journal used for self-education should model itself after this expanded type of commonplace book."

"Rather, the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader's own words; then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought."

Also from The Well-Educated Mind:

Things included in E.M. Forster's commonplace book:

    *Quotes from his readings

    *Evaluations of his readings

    *Happenings from his day

    *Personal reflections on a phrase or idea from his reading

    *His thoughts on readings

I do not copy passages from everything I read.  Sometimes I am just not in the mood.  Over the years I have found that this has developed my composition skills and punctuation comes easier.  The act of copying along with reading has helped me become a better writer.  I enjoy looking back at my journals and reading passages that I copied.  It helps me remember what I read.

Do you keep a commonplace journal?


  1. Yes, I do keep a commonplace journal. Great blog post!

    1. Thank you Kathy! It is interesting to know that you keep a commonplace journal as well. I think many of us who love to read keep one so that we can collect some of the words that bring us joy.

  2. I've kept a commonplace book since I was in college. I didn't even know that's what they were called for years. One of the things this has done is track how my handwriting has changed. (Probably would sound better to say "refined itself," wouldn't it?)

    1. That's interesting Cathy, I didn't think about that. I guess it is a good way to keep your handwriting up since most things only require typing these days.