Several years ago, Steven Berlin Johnson gave an address titled, “The Glass Box and the Commonplace Book” in which he discussed two different paths for the future of text. One was the glass box, the concept that a text is something of a museum piece. It’s meant to be looked at, but not touched or manipulated. The other path was the commonplace book:
Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters—just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”
I love the idea of a commonplace book as a tool for idea formation. I’ve hacked together a similar system myself using physical notebooks and Evernote. As I’ve mentioned, creativity occurs by collecting seemingly disparate material and searching for connection. Keeping a commonplace book is a time-tested method for organizing thoughts and stimulating ideas.
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