How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book”

January 24, 2014 — 32 Comments

The other day I was reading a book and I came across a little anecdote. It was about the great Athenian general Themistocles. Before the battle of Salamis, he was locked in a vigorous debate with a Spartan general about potential strategies for defeating the Persians. Themistocles was clearly in the minority with his views (but which ultimately turned out to be right and saved Western Civilization). He continued to interpret and contradict the other generals. Finally, the Spartan general threatened to strike Themistocles if he didn’t shut up and stop. “Strike!” Themistocles shouted back, “But listen!”

When I read this, I immediately began a ritual that I have practiced for many years–and that others have done for centuries before me–I marked down the passage and later transferred it to my “commonplace book.” Why? Because it’s a great line and it stood out to me. I wrote it down, I’ll want to have it around for later reference, for potentially using it in my writing or work, or for possible inspiration at some point in the future.

In other posts, we’ve talked about how to read morewhich books to read, how to read books above your level and how to write. Well, the commonplace book is a thread that runs through all those ideas. It what ties those efforts together and makes you better at each one of them. I was introduced and taught a certain version of this system by Robert Greene and now I am passing along the lessons because they’ve helped me so much.

What is a Commonplace book?

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.

Not only did all these famous and great individuals do it. But so have common people throughout history. Our true understanding of the Civil War, for example, is a result of the spread of cheap diaries and notebooks that soldiers could record their thoughts in. Art of Manliness recently did an amazing post about the history of pocket notebooks. Some people have gone as far as to claim that Pinterest is a modern iteration of the commonplace book.

And if you still need a why–I’ll let this quote from Seneca answer it (which I got from my own reading and notes):

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”

How to Do It (Right)

-Read widely. Read about anything and everything and be open to seeing what you didn’t expect to be there–that’s how you find the best stuff. Shelby Foote, “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.” If you need book recommendations, these will help.

-Mark down what sticks out at you as you read–passages, words, anecdotes, stories, info. When I read, I just fold the bottom corners of the pages. If I have a pen on me, I mark the particularly passages I want to come back to. I used to use flag-it highlighters, which can be great.

-Again, take notes while you read. It’s what the best readers do, period. it’s called “marginalia.” For instance, John Stuart Mill hated Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we know this based on his copies of Emerson’s books where he made those (private) comments. You can also see some of Mark Twain’s fascinating marginalia here. Bill Gates’ marginalia is public on a website he keeps called The Gates Notes. It’s a way to have a conversation with the book and the author. Don’t be afraid to judge, criticism or exclaim as you read.

-Wisdom, not facts. We’re not just looking random pieces of information. What’s the point of that? Your commonplace book, over a lifetime (or even just several years), can accumulate a mass of true wisdom–that you can turn to in times of crisis, opportunity, depression or job.

-But you have to read and approach reading accordingly. Montaigne once teased the writer Erasmus, who was known for his dedication to reading scholarly works, by asking with heavy sarcasm, “Do you think he is searching in his books for a way to become better, happier, or wiser?” In Montaigne’s mind, if he wasn’t, it was all a waste. A commonplace book is a way to keep our learning priorities in order. It motivates us to look for and keep only the things we can use.

-After you finish the book, put it down for a week or so. Let it percolate in your head. Now, return to it and review all the material you’ve saved and transfer the marginalia and passages to your commonplace book.

-It doesn’t have to just be material from books. Movies, speeches, videos, conversations work too. Whatever. Anything good.

-Actually writing the stuff down is crucial. I know it’s easier to keep a Google Doc or an Evernote project of your favorite quotes…but easy has got nothing to do with this. As Raymond Chandler put it, “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.” (Disclosure: for really long pieces, I’ll type it up and print it out).

-Technology is great, don’t get me wrong. But some things should take effort. Personally, I’d much rather adhere to the system that worked for guys like Thomas Jefferson than some cloud-based shortcut.

-That being said, I don’t think the “book” part is all that important, just that it is a physical resource of some kind. If you do want a book, Moleskines are great and so are Field Notes.

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

-These Vaultz Index Card boxes are also good for smaller projects (they have a lock and key as well).

-Don’t worry about organization…at least at first. I get a lot of emails from people asking me what categories I organize my notes in. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. The information I personally find is what dictates my categories. Your search will dictate your own. Focus on finding good stuff and the themes will reveal themselves.

-Some of my categories for those who are curious: Life. Death. Writing. Stoicism. Strategy. Animals. Narrative Fallacy. Books. Article Ideas. Education. Arguing with Reality. Misc.

-Don’t let it pile up. A lot of people mark down passages or fold pages of stuff they like. Then they put of doing anything with it. I’ll tell you, nothing will make your procrastinate like seeing a giant pile of books you have to go through and take notes on it. You can avoid this by not letting it pile up. Don’t go months or weeks without going through the ritual. You have to stay on top of it.

-Because mine is a physical box with literally thousands of cards, I don’t carry the whole thing with me. But if I am working on a particular section of a book, I’ll take all those cards with me. Or when I was working on my writing post for Thought Catalog, I grabbed all the “writing” cards before I hopped on a flight and through the post together while I was in the air.

-It doesn’t have to be just other people’s writing. One of my favorite parts of The Crack Up–a mostly forgotten collection of materials from F. Scott Fitzgerald published after his death–is the random phrases and observations he made. They are aphorisms without the posturing that comes with writing for publication. So many of my notecards are just things that occurred to me, notes to myself in essence. It’s your book. Use it how you want.

-Look at other people’s commonplace books. It’s like someone is separating the wheat from the chaff for you. Try a Google Books search for “Commonplace Book”–there is great stuff there.

-Use them! Look, my commonplace book is easily justified. I write and speak about things for a living. I need this resource. But so do you. You write papers, memos, emails, notes to friends, birthday cards, give advice, have conversations at dinner, console loved ones, tell someone special how you feel about them. All these are opportunities to use the wisdom you have come across and recorded–to improve what you’re doing with knowledge passed down through history.

-This is a project for a lifetime. I’ve been keeping my commonplace books in variety of forms for 6 or 7 years. But I’m just getting started.

-Protect it at all costs. As the historian Douglas Brinkley said about Ronald Reagan’s collection of notecards: “If the Reagans’ home in Palisades were burning, this would be one of the things Reagan would immediately drag out of the house. He carried them with him all over like a carpenter brings their tools. These were the tools for his trade.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

-Start NOW. Don’t put this off until later. Don’t write me about how this is such a good idea and you wish you had the time to do it too. You do have the time. But start, now, and stop putting it off. Make it a priority. It will pay off. I promise.

If anyone wants to post photos of their Commonplace Book or describe their personal method–go for it (or email it to me).

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

32 responses to How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book”

  1. Great post! I think documenting our thoughts is so under-appreciated: it’s important to bottle knowledge and inspiration, to keep it for a time where we can make use of it (and that ladies and gentlemen, is why luck is actually all about preparation)

    I’ve actually been using a “cloud” based solution since I started my Commonplace Book: OneNote. I find it’s perfect because it works on my laptop, phone and tablet, and I don’t have to worry about the hassle of carrying a notebook around all the time (since inspiration can strike anywhere!). I do make sure that I physically write down things myself for the most part instead of copying and pasting (and paraphrasing when I do copy). Another advantage I’ve found is storage and organization: I can add and edit to notes as necessary.

    PS Just found your blog, already loving it- keep up the great work!

  2. My girlfriend in high school bought a notebook and told me that I should just start writing. I have kept a notebook ever since. It has changed me for the better. So many thoughts and ideas that I would never have worked through if I hadn’t been able to write them down. It’s good to hear that the practice is tried and true.

    This post has summed up what I thought for years but have never been able to put into words. Funny that the practice of writing in the notebooks never became the topic of writing.

    Thanks.

  3. I saw one of your earlier pieces on this topic, I think at thought catalog. I’ve been doing this for a few years without realizing it was a thing. Your piece made me realize I should take it more seriously, and it have been. So thanks for that.

    Now, it’s time to start creating from it all.

  4. I would always make notes in the margins whenever my English teacher started rambling about a topic or book. When I re-read them today, those notes are way more meaningful than interesting than the real notes. I had NO IDEA that “marginalia” is a real practice! It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

  5. One comment: after reading this on ThoughtCatalog I stared this myself. But worrying about preserving the notes, and wanting an easy way to search should I need to, I decided to buy one of the LiveScribe pens. This enables me to follow your suggestion of physically writing notes onto flashcards, while having the material automatically (and digitally) saved.

    Ryan, have you ever found yourself pouring through your themes, looking for a quote you know you wrote down, but never finding it? I don’t have enough materials yet to determine if my strategy while prove worthwhile, but I imagine it cannot work.

  6. Before I heard Joe Polish say that Neil Strauss kept a crazy amount of notes on his phone and then each night would categorize them for easy access, I thought I was crazy. I’m in dire need of a good way to take my notes / sort my stuff because i keep sending myself a ton of email each day, night (when i’m trying to sleep and have too many ideas) or at any point in my week…

    But I love that. I have many files on my computer (i keep everything electronic, although I understand and really like the way you do it) that are all themed by main subject. Each time a subject becomes too crowded, i create a new file with a sub subject. My favorite method are spreadsheets because i can have multiple tabs and it makes everything neat and easy to organize and sort. Although I tried many other methods (my own PHP scripts, Evernotes, dropbox, etc) i always go back to spreadsheet since they are so malleable to my need and universal.

    But i have a question about taking notes in a book. I do that a LOT in hard copies (here’s a sample of a average page from Tim Ferriss 4HWW: http://www.joelalain.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/20131212_guruchallenge.jpg) but i find it horrible in kindle (on ipad or android). Can anyone tell me if there is a way to read book with OTHER apps that the Kindle or iBook readers? They are truly dreadful and you can’t do anything with them… I’d like to do a bit like on the image above: circle words, margin notes, shapes or even directly DRAW on any parts of a page, etc. With the Kindle, i often want to only underline a small part but also “keep” a few sentences before and after so that i can refer to them but i just cant..

    thanks

    • Just to add on that, I just realized that i love taking notes with Snagit (I use it a TON for other images and sorting websites that i like (i used to have a web design cie) and have thousands of those. But yesterday, after writing this comment, i took a note from a Fastcompany article and used Snagit to do exactly as my 4hww image above (as a test) and it was wonderful: arrows, yellow highlights, brackets, circles, colors, etc. + bubble for additionnal margin notes. Is there a way to do this on Kindle, or an app that open kindle books that i could use to do that? The only (major) drawback when i used snagit to take notes on that articles is that all text is converted to images, therefore not searchable… Bummer

      • Joel, if you use an iPhone you might want to try Captio. It opens on a blank screen and, when you save, emails it to you with the from address of Captio. Then in your email you can set up a filter to put those all in one folder for processing later.

        Yes, you can do this with existing email, but skipping the step of having to enter your email address makes a difference.

  7. I’ve been jotting down notes on a legal pad for years and then every Sunday transferring it to my Commonplace Excel spreadsheet. Great way to recall one’s thoughts, vocab, even finances and diet. I came across it through Sir Francis Bacon’s “The Promus of Formularies and Elegancies”. Another great way is to copy/paste online essays/articles in word to highlight key ideas that one can refer to later on. Kindle is also great for this as well when dealing with books. Easier to organize, recall, and build upon than an actual physical database of knowledge but to each his own!

  8. Hey Ryan,

    Loved the article I’ve been writing in a journal for some time. But the idea of a commonplace book to store ideas and random information I come across and would like to keep is brilliant. Just a side note the links in the article are all going to a 404 page. I would be interested in reading the articles on how to read more and which books to read. Couldn’t find a search bar or anything to look for the pages otherwise I would have done it that way. Let me know if it is possible to fix those links or direct me them.

    Jeff

  9. Hey Ryan,

    Loved the article I’ve been writing in a journal for some time. But the idea of a commonplace book to store ideas and random information I come across and would like to keep is brilliant. Just a side note the links in the article are all going to a 404 page. I would be interested in reading the articles on how to read more and which books to read. Couldn’t find a search bar or anything to look for the pages otherwise I would have done it that way. Let me know if it is possible to fix those links or direct me them.

    Jeff

  10. Late to the game, but must say I like this article. I keep mementos from all my travels and hope that I will eventually use them to write a book. I suppose I should be more organized in keeping a commonplace book (or box).

  11. Yannick Mortier July 10, 2014 at 2:02 am

    Oh wow! I can’t even express how this blog post came into my life at exactly the right time!

    I’ve started reading so many books lately and now I started being paranoid because I always remembered some small facts and tidbits, but not their exact phrasing. So I was thinking about a system to keep track of all the information and I didn’t even want to read books anymore until I figured it out, afraid to lose everything I read again.

    The information from this post helps me to get my head straight, especially the part about writing in the book first and transferring later. Because I have already started organizing all my other stuff into Evernote as I developed the system myself. However, I find it very distracting, having to sit at the computer the whole time while I’m reading a book.

    I think I’ll still use Evernote, because tagging stuff and searching for it later is just so damn useful, I’m already addicted to it because I just find everything I’ve been searching for for hours before.

    But you’re right, writing things by hand commits them to memory better. So maybe I’ll just do the following:

    Read the book, transfer notes and marginalia later onto a paper. Type that paper into Evernote.

    Thank you so much. This might seem like a minor little tidbit, but this just literally lifted a huge weight (of books) from my shoulders.

  12. Greetings. I came upon your piece about commonplace books via a very circuitous route, but instantly recognized the concept from my own practice of keeping notebooks. I certainly identify with your attachment to pen and paper, but I also recognize the incredible utility of cross-plaform, searchable, digital cloud-based notes. I’ve adopted a hybrid system that makes use of the ubiquitous Evernote alongside actual written journals. I keep my notes in Evernote Smart Moleskine notebooks, and each morning, I scan the previous day’s pages, tag them with key words appropriate to their content, and file them away in my Evernote account. Because I subscribe to their premium service, images and scans I add to my account become searchable via OCR and Evernote’s powerful search engine. It’s the best of both worlds. I benefit from the intentional activity of writing notes out by hand, and I’m assured of being able to find anything I have written down whenever I want it. I can have the pleasure of paging through my books and looking for that memory that’s niggling at the back of my brain, but I don’t have to carry pounds of past books with me to have instant access on the road. In fact, I keep much better written notes now that I know they won’t just be consigned to a shelf, inaccessible when I might want them again.

  13. This is a great article!

    I used to get distracted from making important notes, because I was constantly trying to find the best system for organizing them. I literally had dozens of notebooks, journals and notepads to “categorize” what I was capturing. Imagine how much fun and joy that brought into my life!

    Once I finally just started using basically two journals, one that remains near my desk and one in my handbag, the joy of spontaneously capturing all those bits of wisdom and inspiration returned. With that came an incredible burst of creativity!
    I use one run-on document on my computer for longer stints of writing.

    I like the idea of using the Life Scribe for tactile pleasure of writing and the convenience of digital storage. I will try that.

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