I guess our biggest loss in reading (or listening to lectures etc) is that once a book is placed on the shelves, we’re back to who we were before, as if we hadn’t read that book in the first place.
The things we learned are merely floating unorganized in the space of our heads. As a result we have no ideas of how to apply them in our life.
I wrote a small section about keeping and writing in a commonplace book a few months ago in another article. So I might have to risk being a little repetitive.
So what is a commonplace book? It’s basically a journal, if nothing else. A journal that you use specifically for writing the things you learned from reading or from anywhere — Seminars, documentaries, movies, even from thoughtful lyrics. A journal that you revisit from time to time. Going back and revisiting — That’s the glue that binds everything together.
Keeping a commonplace book sounds like extra work, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. I don’t know about you, but books cost money and time. I’d hate to spend good money on something and not make the most out of it. I’ll say it again : Reading is work. It’s really not this half-brained activity that you do simply as a pastime or when you feel like doing it.
For starters, a commonplace book isn’t merely a book of quotes, as most people would think when they flip through my books. It’s a rich trove of advice and stories from people that are much smarter than me. Looking back at them is a great aid in times of hardship, depression, or when I’m searching for inspiration.
It’s a way to ensure that the things I learn are sewn into my life. So that they become a part of the air I breathe. So that they aren’t simply forgotten after I reach the other end of a book. So that a long way from now, I still remember them.
And keeping a commonplace book has always been a companion in my writing. It’s much cooler to think that ideas come solely from those “eureka” moments when you shower, run, walk or when you’re not thinking about anything. While there’s some truth in that, I like to believe that all of that wouldn’t happen if I hadn’t written in my commonplace book beforehand. To quote Raymond Chandler, “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.”
And also, like everyone else, I procrastinate on other stuff. All. The. Time.
I write in my commonplace book as a kind of warm-up, to get my engines hot. So even when I’m being a sloth, I’m getting important work done. Writing stuff in my commonplace book is something I hate doing, but I can tolerate. This way it prevents unrecorded books from piling up.
So what do I actually write in there? What’s my system?
It’s basically this :
When I read, I take notes. I write my thoughts in the margins — Condensing the points into simple words and sentences, how it relates to other things I know, whether I agree or disagree, for example.
I mark the passages and lines that inspire me, that I feel are important. I fold the pages that contain those notes.
After I’m done with a book, I read another one (or if I feel a little saturated, I give myself a break from reading). A week after I’ve finished reading that book, I go through those notes and then transfer them into my commonplace book.
Give it a week so that those ideas marinate and cook up in your mind. You’ll slowly see connections and how those pieces fit into your everyday life. Also, so that when you review them, you know which passages you underlined are no longer important to you.
One important thing to remember, though, is that you’re not doing this for school. Don’t bother trying to remember names, facts, and trivia. Write down only the things that are capable of immediate practice — The advice, sayings and so on that are sure to help you.
One last thing, don’t treat my advice as gospel or anything. They’re just ideas to help get you started. There’s no right way to keep a commonplace book. There are no rules. You’re free to do it your way.
It’s fair to say that my commonplace system is constantly changing. Even now, instead of using books, I’m starting to use notecards — So that it’s easier for me to organize my notes by theme, and it will be easier for me to go back to them and use them for my writing.
Go on, give it a try.