Do you read books? Do you read a lot of books? Do you remember all of the great information, lessons, and points you might take from the writing you ingest?
I read a lot of books. I also do a poor job of retaining the information I read with memory alone. As a result, I began to look for a system to capture in an efficient manner the parts of texts that I read.
During my school days, I took copious marginalia notes in books, which I still do and highly recommend. Marginalia, however, are only retrievable if you pick up the book again and find the page on which you took the note. In other words, in recording your note, your observation will forever be captured and stored on a page in another writer’s book. It is not portable, searchable, or usable in that form.
Enter the commonplace book. A commonplace book is, in its simplest terms, a centralized collection of the notes and excerpts a reader takes from books that he or she has read. The practice is one that was particularly popular centuries ago. Robert Darnton described the idea in a 2000 article in the New York Review of Books:
Time was when readers kept commonplace books. Whenever they came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life. Erasmus instructed them how to do it; and if they did not have access to his popular De Copia, they consulted printed models or the local schoolmaster. The practice spread everywhere in early modern England, among ordinary readers as well as famous writers like Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, John Milton, and John Locke. It involved a special way of taking in the printed word. Unlike modern readers, who follow the flow of a narrative from beginning to end, early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns by transcribing them in different sections of their notebooks. Then they reread the copies and rearranged the patterns while adding more excerpts. Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.
A commonplace book can take any number of forms, from a journal, to an electronic database, to loose scraps of paper. (Thomas Jefferson apparently collected loose scraps for his commonplace collection, and then had them bound later in his life). I use a system that is heavily promoted by Robert Greene (author of books including The 48 Laws of Power) and Ryan Holiday (author of books including The Obstacle is the Way). When reading a book, I mark pages and passages I find worthwhile or particularly insightful. I also take margin notes and otherwise mark up my books. When I finish a book, I set it aside for a period of days.
After some days have passed, I return to the book, and I review my marked passages and notes. With the passage of time, some of the marked passages no longer seem worth recording to me, and I ignore those. I write down those that remain onto paper notecards. I write the quote, along with the author, title, and page number on the card. In the top right corner of the card, I label the card with a theme. I have no predetermined themes or any limit to the number of themes that I may use, although themes are obviously more useful if you pick topics that are applicable to a broad enough set of quotes that you can gather related ideas. Examples from the last four or five books that I’ve read might be: “zen,” “stoicism,” “cognitive bias,” “leadership,” and “work.” Placing them on notecards as opposed to a fixed journal allows me to organize notes, or take a small set of notes with me if traveling or working remotely.
As you collect more and more notes, you will find that these themes develop and emerge across multiple texts. This will allow you to become a comparative and a more analytical thinker. How do different texts and different writers illuminate these themes in different ways? What similarities do you find? What differences? Ultimately, your focus should shift to developing your own analytical viewpoint and insights into these areas of thought. When that happens, you know that you have moved from just “reading” to “thinking,” from “consuming” to “analyzing,” and ultimately, from “observation” to “creation.”