The Commonplace Book is a specific kind of literary journal-meets-scrapbook. It’s a place to record and remember those passages that you’ve highlighted in your favorite books, thinking “this is good, I’ll want to return to this someday.” The Commonplace Book is a method for compiling what the ancient rhetors called a copia.
The word copia is a noun that means “plenty” or “abundance.” It is the root of words like “copious” and “copy.” You may remember hearing it around Thanksgiving time in the term cornucopia, or “horn of plenty,” a rams horn (or at least a basket shaped like one) filled with fruit and veggies.
Cornucopia, originally the horn of a goat that suckled Zeus which broke off and was filled with fruit, has come to symbolize overflowing abundance.
In rhetorical terms, a copia is an abundance of ideas, illustrations, or arguments. It is the stockpile of imagery from which a great rhetorician draws to make his point. Aristotle spoke of it as a quiver of rhetorical arrows, always at the ready.
The Commonplace Book is a way to record those phrases, axioms, ideas, proverbs, images and other nuggets of whatever shape and size that you’d like to have at the ready for future use in an essay, story, research paper, or just to enrich a conversation with your friends.
John Locke famously published a method for indexing your Commonplace Book so as to make put every entry at the tip of your fingers.
The Public Domain Review posted a great article about Locke’s method here.
Of course, with the advent of digital technology, particularly blogs with categories and tags, Locke’s method seems more than a bit outdated. I find, however, that the very act of indexing an unused journal, handwriting the entries, and then recording them in the index, both elegant and satisfying. Admittedly, for the practicality of it, I utilize digital options more often than my physical journals, but I wish I didn’t. There is something magical about the flow of ink (especially from my Uni-Ball Signo Micro 207) on pulpy leafs of unbleached paper, hand-sewn and leather-bound, that really stokes the fires of my imagination and literary passion.
All this to say, give it try. And let us know what you think of the entries in our ever-growing Commonplace blog.