Trinitas Blog

An Introduction to Commonplacing

Posted by Sean Hadley on Aug 28, 2022 5:01:28 PM

CommonplacingImageHave you ever tried to quote someone, but ended up having to spend more time explaining how you’re probably getting it wrong from the outset? Has a conversation ever provoked a memory for you of something you once heard, and you’re certain it is relevant to the moment, but for the life of you, the words will simply not come when called? Such gaps in memory are a normal part of the everyday experience for most of us. And in the heat of the moment, we’re often tempted to turn to the nearest search engine, sometimes a bit chastened by having to rely on such an outside source. And it is this last part that might make you wonder, “what did people do before Google?”This question, how did people in the past recall vast amounts of information and quotes, can take on even greater importance once you begin reading the great works of the past. Consider the immense number of quotations found in Augustine. Or the overwhelming amount of allusions in the works of Shakespeare. How were these writers able to recall so many beautiful, true, and good quotes as they wrote? While we may never know, this side of the veil, how these two men built such elaborate memories, we are able to see how many of their contemporaries and subsequent writers developed such skills: by keeping a commonplace book.

For many of our parents, the first time they encounter a commonplace book is when their student’s Traditio teacher assigns it. Trinitas teachers require that students in the Logic and Rhetoric school keep a commonplace book. While there are a lot of good reasons for students to develop this habit, here are three primary reasons why the commonplace book is essential to a proper liberal arts education.

Commonplacing aids our memory.

Thinking back to the opening questions, it is easy to see how actively keeping a commonplace back can help a reader develop a better memory. Rather than slipping into Billy Collins’s “Forgetfulness,” where “whatever it is you are struggling to remember, / it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,” a commonplace book preserves those things worth remembering for you. You can turn to it when you want to recall something, and a well-organized commonplace book may even become a powerful tool to help you write.

Commonplacing makes us better readers.

A common temptation amongst readers today is to quickly “get through” a book, check it off the list of things to read, and then move on to something else. But if we are going to keep a commonplace book, we have to be more intentional, move more slowly, and read for more than information. It is as though we are on the hunt, looking on every page for a nugget of wisdom that may strike us with its truth, a poetic expression that captivates us with its beauty, or an admonition that moves us to think more about goodness.

 Commonplacing provides us with a long-lasting resource.

Jonathan Swift, in his “A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet,” explains that in the commonplace book “you enter not only your own original thoughts, (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but such of other men as you think fit to make your own by entering them there.” The commonplace book is the only real private resource that enables a kind of long-term conversation, similar to the discussion in the classroom. By recording the thoughts of others, and constantly returning to them for consideration, a reader is confronted by thoughts that are not his own, by arguments that she may disagree with, and the mind is sharpened as a result.

These are not the only reasons a commonplace book would be a blessing to have lying around the house, but they are three of the reasons why Trinitas requires them of our students. While they may lean upon some impersonal search engine to answer questions on the job site someday, a well-kept commonplace will be a source of refreshment in the classroom and beyond.

Topics: Blog Posts, School Life, Studying, Classical Education, Reading, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

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