Commonplace Books Are Like a Diary Without the Risk of Annoying Yourself – The New York Times


I’ve never been a journal person, though not for lack of trying. A monogrammed duffel bag in my parents’ basement holds many old diaries — a furry leopard-print one from elementary school, Moleskines with unbroken spines from college — each with an optimistic entry or two. But the habit has never stuck. That’s partly down to a lack of discipline, but I think it’s mostly self-consciousness. I can’t help reading whatever I’m writing as some future-me would, rolling her eyes, condescending from the other side of whatever dilemma I’m going through.

But there is one notebook I’ve kept up regularly for a decade: my commonplace book. The slim red book is filled with quotes, lines from books and songs and poems and conversations that stuck with me. Nothing is my original thought, but all of it struck me as meaningful when I wrote it down.

Commonplace books are hardly new. In the Renaissance, readers started transcribing classical fragments in notebooks, bringing ancient writings into conversation with their own lives. After his wife left him in 1642, John Milton processed it in his commonplace book, chronicling a reading binge about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle transcribed criminology theories in his, and then gave Sherlock Holmes his own commonplace book, filled with intel on up-and-coming forgers. But the idea of a personal intellectual database fell out of style as printed material became more accessible to a broader audience. You could just look at a copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Today you can scroll through inspirational quotes on Instagram.

I started keeping a commonplace book in college for an English assignment. Over the 10 years since, I’ve kept it up. When I lived in Austin, I updated it regularly as I read at my desk; in Brooklyn, where I had no room for a desk, I would take photos of passages in library books and transcribe them later in a coffee shop. These days I live semi-nomadically, without a fixed address, and I email myself lines. Every few months I sift through them and copy the ones that still resonate into my book.

With others’ words as intermediaries, the harsh light of hindsight softens.

From my early 20s, there are pages trying to convince myself that friendship, which I had, could be as valuable as romantic love, which I didn’t. (Andrew Sullivan: “If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy.”) Then there’s reference to the kind of heady, urgent closeness that I surrounded myself with instead. (Sean Wilsey: “Those three in the mornings in a booth with a bunch of people that I really liked talking about whatever and …….


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