The Art of Commonplace For Students, Part 2

This series of three posts is addressed to students—of all ages!— based on the Commonplace Book Practices at Providence Prep. Read Part 1 here.

Dearest y’all,

So you have all of your commonplacing materials, and you are eager to get started. But wait! First, you need to take a moment to

Set Up Your Commonplace Book

My hope is that this book will become a treasured record of your reading and thinking over years—a lifelong delight, as mine has. Toward that end, a few minutes attending to the overall format of your Commonplace Book is in order.

A Title Page

Here you want to include the title “Commonplace Book,” along with your name, the date you begin the book. Also, be sure to save a line for the date completed. Below that, you may wish to include an inspirational commonplace quote, like the one from John Quincy Adams (Part 1), or another one equally inspiring.

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Numbered Pages

Next, number the remaining right-hand pages, except the last one, in the upper right corner. Then, center the title INDEX on the final right-hand page.

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That’s it! A pretty simple set up. Now, it’s time to

Read With Your Commonplace Book In Mind

Nota Bene: The following is infused with my personal opinion about writing in books. I am an ardent fan of it. BUT, you answer to your parents first, and your parents may disagree with me. So, before you go following my advice here, please run it by them first, and abide by their wishes!

Pen at the Ready

Make it a habit to read with a pen in hand and your Reading Journal nearby (separate from your Commonplace). If you have been assigned any specific commonplace entries, look the requirements over before you begin reading. As you read, mark passages in the book and make notes in your Reading Journal with page numbers and brief notes about potential passages to add to your Commonplace. Sticky notes or flags make good page markers for possible commonplace passages; I keep a dozen or so inside the back cover of the book.

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I do encourage you to thoughtfully write in your books. This helps you process what you are reading, and is a physical record of your thoughts and questions as you read. You will find it a joy to come back to a book for the second or third time, see your earlier comments and questions, and add new ones. Your marginalia—yep, those scribbles have a name!—will become a record of your personal growth as a reader, as a thinker, and as a child of God. It is one way that you begin to wade into the Great Conversation. And who knows? Those scribbles may be worth big $$ someday if you become famous.

Of course, this probably means that you must own the books you study. I have written elsewhere about why you should own those books if at all possible. Some of you may share books with your siblings in the same class, or even with your parents—but this does not need to be a hindrance to markings in the book! You could each have your own color ink and the book could actually be a cool three-way conversation between you, your loved ones, and the author.

Underline, mark with stars, parentheses, question marks, brackets, or any other marks that make sense to  you. This does not mean you should indiscriminately mark everything  you read, but when you come across really important thoughts, witty and apt observations, expressions of eloquence and beauty, mark those. And then, make notes in the margins—agreements and disagreements with the author.  Make note of connections you see—for example, when Chesterton agrees with Plutarch.

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I reluctantly concede that some folks simply cannot bring themselves to write in their books. Also, there may be times when you must use a library book, and librarians can be a bit persnickety about such a practice. In that case, you must be content with sticky notes along with the hints in your Reading Journal to remind you of potential commonplace passages.

Making Entries In Your Commonplace Book

Set aside several commonplace sessions of ten to fifteen minutes each during the week. Make your commonplace sessions a scheduled event, rather than an item to check off your checklist.  In fact, you might consider commonplacing in community—another topic for another day.

Begin  your entries on the first right-hand page after the title page and add entries straight through from front to back.Make your regular commonplace entries on the right-hand pages. Save the left-hand pages for tags, additional notes, and future thoughts, or even future entries if you wish to clarify or challenge an earlier entry.

You will probably find that cursive, or some combination of cursive and print will be the best choice for your commonplace entries. My handwriting style is a kind of italic/cursive hybrid. Whichever you choose, slow down enough to make your handwriting as neat and legible as possible. If you are out of the habit of using good penmanship, the practice of careful commonplacing will surely bring improvement.

Commonplace Entry Format

Follow a consistent format for commonplace entries. Include the date, the passage, the attribution, and the tags.

The Date

The date of entry can go on the line immediately above the entry (either right- or left-aligned). Or you might write it even with the top line of the passage on the facing left-hand page.

The Passage

Of course, this should be neat, legible, and copied accurately. Reproduce all punctuation marks and capital letters.

If you must abridge, do so thoughtfully, keeping the author’s thought intact and in context. Integrity requires this! Do not twist an author’s meaning by careless abridgment or taking words out of context. This is true for Scripture as well as any human author.

The Attribution

If  the passage is very short, you may include the attribution immediately after the quote. Otherwise, on the line below the passage, indent (a little or a lot, depending on the attribution!) and write

  • the author’s name
  • the title of the work, correctly formatted
    • every important word capitalized
    • longer works, like books and plays, underlined
    • poems and chapter titles in quotations
    • for a poem, you may include the anthology, formatted as a book title, where you found the poem
  • page or line #

Add other information as needed, such as the date and place of publication, chapter title, or other identifying notes.

The Tags

Tag your commonplace entries with topics, themes, and figures of speech will help you to locate particular entries by scanning the pages of your commonplace. My preference is to add the tags on the facing left-hand page, but you could also write them below the attribution.

Write the tags inside brackets. For figures of speech, I like to write the word figure first, then add the specific type of figure with a hyphen: [figure – metaphor]. Notice these are in lower caps. To distinguish topics and themes from figures in my tags, I suggest you follow the method Jenny Rallens uses of noting these in capital letters: [HEROISM].

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Commonplace Index

On that final blank right-hand page, index your entries as you go for future reference. You probably will not have room to index every single entry, but make it your practice to

  • add an index item whenever you begin reading a new book
  • add an index item for particularly insightful quotes or for quotes you particularly love

Plan for at least two columns on this page. Enter index items briefly, with a word or short phrase, followed by the page number in the Commonplace Book.

Completing a Commonplace Book

When you run out of room in your commonplace book, add the date completed to the title page. Keep your completed commonplace books somewhere handy. Then set up a new Commonplace Book and keep going! You are well on your way to a life well-read.

The Art of Commonplace for Students:

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