A couple of years ago, I taught a May Term class called Survey of English Poetry, 1500-1700. During May Term, my students kept “commonplace books,” which turned out to be a surprisingly fun, and for some students, a very meaningful, exercise. In the Renaissance—and actually up through the nineteenth century—many people in Western culture used commonplace books as repositories of quotes, recipes, meditations, Biblical passages, illustrations, observations on nature and the passage of time, and poems. It was a way for people to represent themselves in relation to the inherited knowledge of the culture. To emulate this practice requires a Renaissance habit of mind—a mind that is continually culling information from the world, and above all, experimenting with a “writerly” self.
On the first day of class, I distributed small 3 ½ x5 ½” Moleskine blank notebooks. Each day of May Term, I encouraged students to write excerpts of their favorite poems, horoscopes, lyrics from their favorite songs, descriptions of what they were learning in other disciplines, or any other meditations that came to mind. At first, I worried that they wouldn’t be interested in writing longhand, especially when they could just enter thoughts into Evernote on their smart phones. Remarkably, though, they were drawn to the experience, perhaps precisely because so much of what they do is relegated to screens.
I was astonished by the results of this project. If you click on this link, you’ll see some examples of the most interesting commonplace books. If you want to learn a bit more about commonplace books and how they’ve been used over time, check out this page.