Katzev, Richard. A Commonplace Book Primer.

Portland, OR: The Author, 2011.

When I was a developing book-nerd in high school more than fifty years ago, I rather self-consciously began writing down brief extracts from the books I read, the thoughts or observations that really got to me. I eventually got too busy with Real Life to keep it up, but when I came into possession of my own computer c.1980, I started keeping notes again.

By that time, I recognized that the practice had a long history and that many people of a reflective and intellectual bent have maintained notebooks of thoughts and quotes from their reading — almost always hand-written, it’s part of the psychological process — and that the result is known as a “commonplace” book. (The OED defines “commonplaces” as “passages important for later reference.”) Nowadays, largely because of my library background, I tend to write whole reviews of what I read, but I still maintain a number of topical text files of quotes and excerpts.

As the definition says, the urge to underline passages or to copy them out enables you to return to them later, to think again about what they say and how and why they made an impression on you. It leads one to a deeper form of reading and aids one’s fleeting memory. It may even lead to a deeper understanding of oneself. Some people jot down something every month or two, some copy out large masses of material from almost every book. And people have been doing this since Aristotle, who recommended the practice. Thomas Jefferson did it, and W. H. Auden, and Erasmus, and E. M. Forster, and Emerson, and Milton, and Charles Curtis. And, of course, quite a few ordinary, thoughtful readers.

Katzev goes into the tradition and practice of keeping a commonplace book, gives many examples from many types, and reports the results of an informal survey on purpose and methodology that he conducted by mail (he’s a psychologist by profession so that was almost inevitable). Then he explores the more recent phenomenon of commonplace books (or their equivalent) on the Web, as well as the practice of categorization by subject — or not, because some note-takers strongly resist over-organization.

It’s an intriguing and thought-provoking (and quite short) book that might encourage you to buy a nice Moleskin and a good fountain pen and start recording thoughts from your own reading. And the author didn’t commence his book until he was in his fifties, so it’s never too late to start. I’m forced to add, however, that even though the author decided to self-publish this small work, he would have benefitted from a third-party copyedit.

Published in: on 5 January 2015 at 8:27 am  Leave a Comment  

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