You might wonder, “What the heck is a commonplace book?” And since I am a writer, and since you are reading this article, you are about to find out.

Commonplace books have been around for more than two thousand years. These books were a place for people to database everything they were learning before databases were a thing. Scholars and artists throughout history popularized commonplace books as people began reading and writing more, and individuals needed a place to store it all. Otherwise, it would be impossible to keep track of everything, especially without the Notes app.

A commonplace book isn’t a journal, it’s not a sketch pad, and it’s not a research paper — it is everything all at once. A commonplace book is a knowledge holder and, more importantly, an intellectual web. If you read a journal article you love, jot the title down. Watch a movie that you'll never want to forget; whip out your pen. Maybe you see an unfamiliar bird on a park bench; I think you understand. 

But, why make your own? Well, because not only is it fun to pull out a quote to seem cool (albeit very pretentious), give vetted advice, or try to remember that really good movie with the explosions — maybe a ninja? — I think there was a dog. With a commonplace book, you won’t have to put so much energy into remembering; it’ll be in the palm of your hand. You just open up your book, flip through, and, voila, there it is.

Imagine if you had been tracking everything you read since you were a child, not only would that be super cool, but it also means you could see how much growth just a few years can constitute. Commonplace books make that possible. You jot down everything you read, see, or draw in this book. It doesn’t have to be more than the title of your favourite media and a few noteworthy ideas. The point is that as a collective, the book shows who you are at the present moment or the interconnectedness of your ideas all in one place.

In a digital world, some physical items like books have become more critical than ever. There is always so much going on, and so many ideas are just floating around. This media, while relevant, can usually be mind-numbing, sucking us in for a few moments, making even the strongest intellectual fall into an inescapable dopamine hole — flooding your brain with an influx of happy hormones. 

That’s why a commonplace book needs to be physical, an analog piece of our digital world.

This is not an entirely far stretch for a recommendation either; most people write in their Notes app to keep track of daily grocery lists, plans for the weeks, or angry texts we never send. Sometimes, because of its diversity, the Notes app resembles a commonplace book, but they are not the same. Commonplace books aren’t just a to-do list; they should be a space of introspection, creativity, and personal discovery. 

I started a commonplace book my first year of university, and other than cringing at impassioned poetry from past years — I haven’t looked back since. So, if you are interested in joining in, this is how I would suggest you get started.

Pick a book you like. Don’t order it online, either. Take the time to go to a local bookstore, Indigo, or even Walmart to choose whichever aesthetically suits you. This could be in the form of a notebook, diary, or even a sketchbook. Whatever you want, it will work. Add stickers or images to collage the front if you want to customize it. The point of having a physical item is to make you excited to look at it and know when you see it again, it'll be familiar and nostalgic all at once.

Next, section your book into some soft categories to organize it. For example, this could be quotes, inspired material, or personal ideas — maybe some more specific categories too. These categories could be related to projects or current mind-boggling facts that would be great in capturing a current world view, or priority.

Once you have these categories set, then start filling it out. Record and gather material from podcasts, articles, websites, or books. Better yet, if you hear anything in everyday life that sits with you — write it down too. Isn’t it kinda fun to think you might be the only one to have it down in writing? As you keep coming back to the book for classes, or to put in more ideas — review the old material, annotate it if you like, and see with some perspective how much you’ve grown from older novel ideas to your current ones.

Photo provided by Sarah Meier

Finally, as you finish the book with no room to spare, store it away safely, and start a new one. Commonplace books are one of life's greatest proofs that we are truly always learning.