John Locke kept something called a commonplace book. It wasn’t a journal, and it wasn’t quite a scrapbook. It was a collection of excerpts he found significant from other people’s books. He’d copy out the passages by hand and then refer to them in his ever-expanding index so he could find them again.

3PictureFlowerGraffitiIf I were Locke, I’d leave lots of room in the margins for my notes and coloring. My journals for years have been part scrapbooks and part commonplace books, though I haven’t followed Locke’s lead in indexing them. I do number my journals’ pages and cross-reference with those numbers in the pages’ margins, which is about as much organization as I may ever need. Annie Dillard, by comparison, indexes her journals. But I don’t pretend to be Annie Dillard or John Locke, who both organized their private writings in part to help them write books they intended to publish. Wouldn’t it have been cool, though, to have been Thomas of Ireland, a fourteenth-century writer known only for his anthologizing?

Locke, for his part, didn’t pretend to have invented the commonplace book; things in this general genre have been written since antiquity. In Thomas’s time, monks copied excerpts of books into “florilegium.” Harvard’s library website reports that “The florilegium, or ‘gathering of flowers,’ of the Middle Ages and early modern era, collected excerpts primarily on religious and theological themes.” Locke, in fact, published a commonplace book organizing Bible verses into eighty-nine topics and many more subtopics.

Locke’s Commonplace Book to the Holy Bible reminds me of today’s books often called readers, which amount to a Whitman’s Sampler of an author’s work. A reader is often a good way for me to introduce myself to a writer or to a broader sampling of her work. My favorite readers include The Faulkner Reader, The Virginia Woolf Reader, A Thomas Merton Reader, and Seeds of Hope: A Henri Nouwen Reader. Of the four, only the Nouwen reader seems to be in the spirit of a florilegium: it’s organized by topic and includes short enough excerpts from the author’s works to resemble something someone might have first complied for his own edification.1 A more Middle Ages-style reader of Merton’s work might be Robert Inchausti’s compilation Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing, which contains very short, sometimes aphoristic passages and focuses only on what Merton wrote about writing.

Locke was moved to write about writing commonplace books. Locke had his own method for keeping his commonplace books, and his friends urged him to publish a letter he had written another friend on how to keep a commonplace book. A lot of the resulting book has to do with how to keep that running index.

Locke intended his commonplace books mainly as research tools, but I copy out others’ work to benefit my devotional practice and learning. There’s something digestive about copying out something that appeals to me. Writing something out slows me down enough to begin to think about the passage in new ways. I now buy the big art journals so I’ll have lots of room for marginalia that I sometimes break into while copying.

I do dream about writing a book, but the happiest part of my dream is selecting the book’s epigraphs. If I wrote a book, I’d audition hundreds of short passages and herald each of my chapters with around a dozen different epigraphs. I often find myself collecting quotes anyway, not to comment on them but simply to juxtapose them, to put them on the same page and watch them support, expatiate, refute, or qualify one another. A really good pairing seems to create an energy, and sometimes a friendship, much like imaginative and successful pairings among guests at a dinner party. And by the time my quotes have found their place cards, I find I have nothing to say and less reason to say it. My own book would end before it began, then, after a few extended sections of epigraphs. But I would have compiled a commonplace book.

Above: “Red graffiti drawing of flower on stone column” by Horia Varlan. Used by permission. Below: from my journal. Text in green ink is from Robert Lowell’s poem “Eye and Tooth.”


  1. I’m currently reading a similar reader – organized topically with shorter excerpts – entitled Basic Ideas of Montessori’s Education Theory.  It complies a good deal of what Montessori wrote in books, journals, and letters relative to her education theory.

2 thoughts on “Of commonplace books, journals, readers, & epigraphs

  1. I found this to be a very interesting post. From time to time I have started keeping what has been described here as a commonplace book but find that I continually need to change the place and format. The net result is that I have a collection of bits and pieces that slowly drift to the back of my consciousness. Only my book precis and meditations have any degree of order, and at times a certain new ordering must be considered even there. One day I’ll get it right……perhaps!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Tom. Your experience is quite interesting, and I’m heartened by the particular similarities and differences. I’m sure I’ll never get it quite right, either! It occurs to me, responding here, that my blog may be my most organized writing. You mention your book précis and reflections. I may write my book reviews for my blog partly in order to keep track of my reflections with the ease of a search window. I’m certainly a big reader of my own blog.

    And I tend to read my newer journal entries more frequently than my newer blog posts. But I tend to read my older blog post more frequently than my older journal entries. So the polish that turns a journal entry into a blog post is kind of a preservative, too. (Maybe apropos of nothing . . .)

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