The Notes Matrix – thoughts in public

So here’s a quickie about what I have been thinking.  We usually hear general comments about notetaking being the same, e.g.

– A blog is a virtual commonplace book

– Facebook is a modern scrapbook

– What’s the difference between a journal/notebook/diary again?

Here’s the way I see it.  The main questions are:

1. Are you writing the content just for yourself?

2. Are you writing the content so someone else (family, friends, the whole world) can see it?


Notetaking Matrix

Commonplace books?  I don’t agree with the idea that blogs are the modern commonplace books.  A blog is a public persona.  A commonplace was a private internet, a private tool to help someone present a persona.  Showing someone your commonplace book seems the equivalent of showing them your shaving kit.  You wouldn’t want people to see the commonplace itself if the idea is that you make it (‘it’ being your wit, knowledge, ability to quote poetry/prose) seem natural.

But then again it’s that “man behind the curtain” element that I think makes commonplaces so interesting for me.  What type of personal tool would someone from different countries and different eras find essential to present their impression of the best “public persona”?  What specific quotes would they want to memorise for exactly the right time?  What events do they want to recall quickly in a social setting, with the help of their essential little leatherbound book?

It’s different for everyone, of course.


Commonplace review: F Longworth-Dames post #1

I am only starting on this journey of reviewing commonplace books, but already I am starting to see the task as a mash-up of detective work, pop (and not so pop) culture research, fine wine tasting and forensic psychology.  Not that I am qualified for any of the above, apart from the fine wine tasting, or course.  But that is, after all, just a metaphor.

The Trinity College site has a great interface for their manuscripts (link via “read commonplaces online” page).  The high-res scans load quickly and it looks like their selection is well-researched, if focused on a few individuals.  One downside is that I can’t find a summary page of the manuscripts, and it’s practically impossible to link directly to a record (which I’d like to for this post).

I am looking through commonplace #3 in the Francis Longworth-Dames collection.  If only we had journals like this to write in nowadays.

Commonplace leather cover

Stunning cover, and the inside has a great explanatory section about commonplaces.

Continue reading

Lets Look at Locke

To tell the truth, anything I can add about John Locke right here is something you can check out yourself from a quick Google.  I’ll skip the intro and rather introduce you to the indexing system he invented popularised.

If you want to look at the source, check out the following link to a book containing “A new method of making common-place-books” by John Locke.  For a text written in 1706 it is a surprisingly easy read.

In a nutshell, Locke creates a contents/index grid at the beginning of a commonplace book.

New Picture (9)

The grid contains the letters of the alphabet (excluding K, Y and W, which – in Locke’s cryptic opinion, “are supplied by C, I, U, letters of a like power”.  Against each letter he includes the five vowels; a, e, i, o, u (except for Q, which only gets a ‘u’).  Below:


The rules are fairly straightforward:

  • Put a memorable heading at the top of each page and reference in the index by the first letter and the first vowel of the heading title.  So if you had a page with info about Commonplace books on page 2, you would put a no. 2 next to the ‘C o’ row.
    • Likewise, info about Gardening would be filed under ‘G a’, Twitter would be in ‘T i’ and Olympics under ‘O i’ (however in the past it could have been filed under ‘O y’ – we’ll get to that later).  No existing heading?  
    • Create a new memorable heading under the first blank page.
    • If the principal word has only one vowel then file under both the first letter and the vowel.  So Art would be under ‘A a’ and Elf under ‘E e’.
  • When creating a new page, start at the first blank back of the left page so that you can always continue to the right side of the following leaf.  Once you get to the end of the book you can always number and fill up any yet-unused right-hand pages.

That is more or less the idea.  Locke had a good idea which was anecdotally used for the next hundred years at least, although after surfing a number of commonplace books I have yet to find an example of someone using it “in the wild”.  But still, there were limited alternatives apart from leaving some blank pages at the front and cramming alphabetical headings when they arose (a lax variation of Locke’s technique).

Why am I bringing this up if I don’t know if it was widely used?  Well, if one could trace the evolution of the concept of a commonplace book, Locke’s innovation is definitely a key step, even if that particular branch didn’t live up to its full potential.  Although it fit neatly into the staid taxonomy habits of the day, maybe people still valued the personal touch of creating their own system for their handy notepads?

Also, this type of indexing history gives librarian types a warm feeling and gets them a little weak at the knees.

Why commonplacing?

Let me start out by saying I am not an expert.  I also do not keep a detailed commonplace book.  But, like most aspiring writers, I have a history of cluttering my house, bags, desk and random notebooks with snippets of information.

There’s a better way, I thought.  And although I am as wired as the next person (pinterest, twitter, flickr, instagram, facebook, blogs, dropbox, windows drive etc etc), there’s something that seems different, and special, about the art of commonplacing.  But the difference between keeping a well-thumbed, carefully arranged commonplace book vs a list of “likes” via an electronic device?  Well that topic will be for another blog.

As I said, I’m an amateur, but from what I have seen already about commonplace books I can tell that:

  1. People have always had more or less the same thinking patterns.  Modern electronic tools are an imitation of techniques studied and trialed for hundreds of years.
  2. Commonplace books should be seen as much as works of art as they are research tools.
  3. Commonplace books are a unique portal into the mind of the authors.  Other writing forms – scrapbooking, memoirs, even journals – were often written self-consciously with a view for existing or future readers.  On the other hand, commonplace books were an everyday tool for memory, filled with snippets that the author found most worth recording/memorizing.  It is a direct perspective into how they saw the world.
  4. Taxonomy is sexy.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look through the glorious high-res scans (below) from the Harvard University Library collection.

I am not an expert.  I’ll be delving into this world mostly via Google searches and by flicking through online collections, and I’ll be following what peaks my interest.  A quick Google of “commonplace books” will show you commonplace books are beginning to be more popular, but from what I have found so far, this is limited to some short blogs and a high-level overview.  I want to dig deeper.  Much deeper.

Commonplacing is a lost art form, but any student, or writer, or anyone interested in learning for the sake of learning can tell you about their trials of notepads, paper scraps and messy index cards.

Lets dust off those beautiful old books and see what there is to discover.  We’ll all be better for it.

Still not convinced?  Check out this great blog posts for an intro:  How and Why to Keep a “Commonplace Book” – Ryan Halliday

And some light entertainment:  An Introduction to Commonplace Books