Thursday, April 23, 2020


By Mary Davis

Chopin, Kate, 1850-1904 / Public domain.
Contains extracts of works by other authors, personal compositions, notes on current European monarchs, and famous last words of celebrated personages (pages 1-159); and the diary of her 1870 wedding trip from May 24 to September 4 through various eastern United States cities, Germany, and Switzerland
(pages 160-203).

Title: Commonplace Book of Kate Chopin, 1867-1870

“We think and improve our judgments by committing our thoughts to paper.” President John Adams (father of President John Quincy Adams)

 What is a Commonplace book? I heard this term a few months back and was fascinated by the concept.
Commonplace books were popular during the Renaissance and the 19th century in modern Europe. Reading and writing went hand in hand. They read to better themselves and to find truths. They did this by writing out passages from the books they read.

“The ancients followed the same course as ourselves when commencing their meditations, laid up a great store of instances and particulars, and digested them under topics and titles in their commonplace books.”
Sir Francis Bacon, 1620

Beinecke Flickr Laboratory / Public domain
Commonplace book 1620s
 Who has kept a commonplace book?
~Mark Twain — American author
~Elizabeth Cady Stanton — Suffragist
~Julius Caesar — Roman General
~Lewis Carroll — English Author
~Thomas Jefferson — U.S. President
~Napoleon — Emperor of France
~Montaigne — Inventor of the Essay
~Bill Gates — Microsoft Tycoon
~Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau shared a commonplace book about poetry.
~Robert Burns — Author of Auld Lang Syne

Robert Burns’s introduction in his commonplace book.

Robert Burns. 1783. / Public domain
Robert Burns's Commonplace Book 1783-1785. Introduction.
I took a stab at transcribing this page. I never would have been able to attempt it if not for my post in February titled 27th Letter of the Alphabet where I highlighted some of the letters we used to have and no longer use.

“Escaminu(?) N. 30th Aug 1797(?)
Observations, hints, songs, scraps of poetry v__(?) by Robert Burns, a man who had little art in money-making, and still less in keeping it; but was, however, a man of some sense, a great deal of honesty, and unbounded good-will to every creature, rational or irrational. As he was but little indebted to scholastic education and bred at a plough-tail, his performances must be strongly tinctured with his unpolished, rustic way of life; but as I believe, they are really his own, it may be some entertainment to a curious observer of human nature to see how a plough-man thinks and feels, under the pressure of love, ambition, anxiety, grief with the like cares and passions, which, however diversified by the modes, and manners of life operate pretty much alike I believe, in all the species.”

I don’t promise this translation is 100% accurate, but I think I got close. Some of the words were a real challenge to decipher.

I love this line, "...a man who had little art in money-making, and still less in keeping it..." It tells so much about him, including his honesty.

Why have a commonplace book?
—So you can learn to think better.
—Writing down the jumbled thoughts in your brain helps to make sense of them.
—To spark creativity. What inspires has direct results on your creativity. The brain can connect vastly different things when they are in close proximity to each other. Say you wrote down a recipe that you have never been able to get to turn out right and on the next page you have a proposed floor plan for rearranging furniture in a room. Maybe the recipe gives you a new way to think of combining pieces in the room to work better together. Or by rearranging the floor plan, you realize that you need to combine the recipe ingredients in a different order for a better outcome. Without having those things in close proximity to each other those connections wouldn’t have been made. Success with the recipe that had always evaded you and the room would never be quite right. Our brain is an amazing organ.
—So that you don’t have to memorize and recall from memory all those tidbits that sparked inside you.

Beinecke Flickr Laboratory / Public domain
(Manuscript in several hands including leaves
from a common-place book, genealogical
notes and nostrums) ca1620

How is this different from a “journal”?
A journal or diary is more of an account of the happenings of the day.

I believe there is some overlap between a commonplace book and a journal. A journal might mention a particular book the person read and a feeling about it. In a commonplace book, the creator would likely not only name the book and feelings but have quotes from the book that were of particular interest to them.

Each commonplace book is unique to its creator. There is no right or wrong way to keep one. Each commonplace book compiler organizes their collection in their own unique way. Some use a regular purchased notebook. Some use a journal they have made from various papers. Some use index cards. Some modern commonplace bookkeepers us Evernote or some other kind of virtual repository. What works for the individual is the right method.

I’m going to start a commonplace book very soon. My first one will be my learning experience. I have sort of done commonplace book type things throughout my life, but the quotes I wrote down were scattered about, so I could say that it was more of an UNcommon NONbook method of writing down and then losing them. Not very effective.

I recently copied down a C.S. Lewis quote I liked that I will be putting my commonplace book when I get it started.
"Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when we look back everything is different." C.S. Lewis

Do you have a commonplace book? If so, can you share something from it?

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MARY DAVIS s a bestselling, award-winning novelist of over two dozen titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her 2018 titles include; "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides CollectionCourting Her Amish HeartThe Widow’s PlightCourting Her Secret Heart , “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides Collection , and Courting Her Prodigal Heart . 2019 titles include The Daughter's Predicament and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. She is a member of ACFW and active in critique groups.
Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of over thirty-four years and two cats. She has three adult children and two incredibly adorable grandchildren. Find her online at:


  1. This post was very interesting! I think I have done similar things at various times in life but considered them journals. I've really never written about my day but rather usually contemplation on Bible verses and prayers. Whether a journal or commonplace book, enjoyable. How fun it would be to read an old commonplace book as you have done.

    1. Hi Connie,
      Like you, I have done some things like a commonplace book but nothing formal or all together. I like the idea of having things in a common place to refer back to, or several with various themes like Bible verses and prayers.