Commonplace books

notebookI’ve been keeping “commonplace books” since my teens but until recently I didn’t know they had a name.

A commonplace book is a hodgepodge of someone’s collected ideas, quotes, snippets of overheard conversation, observations, or info that reflects your particular interests. Commonplace books are a way of compiling, organizing, and remembering knowledge – traditionally it’s been by writing. Basically you’re backing up your brain.

Its name, the commonplace book, is unfortunate because its meaning isn’t obvious these days. The name comes from Latin and has persisted for hundreds of years. Famous, and not famous, people have kept commonplace books, for example Marcus Aurelius, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, HL Mencken, and Bill Gates.

Keeping a commonplace book isn’t complicated. When you’re reading something that really hits you, jot it down. It can just be bits of writing you find inspiring or interesting. Maybe a piece of advice, a recommendation, a pointer, or someone’s (maybe your own) insight.

You can use stuff from your commonplace book later to help with ideas for writing, talks, or projects. Commonplace books can be reorganized into a more meaningful patterns sometimes.  Some people even use index cards instead of a a book so they can better reorganize  their hodgepodge of ideas into something more connected and accessible to them.

Using a cheap notebook is a good idea so you won’t feel intimidated about putting ideas into a fancy journal. I also now use the internet for saving things, although writing something down is the better way.

What isn’t a commonplace book? Commonplace books aren’t journals, diaries, or a record of your travels that would normally be introspective and in chronological order.

Here’re two examples of recent additions for my commonplace book. First, a short one about reading and books:

Seeing someone reading a book you love is seeing a book recommending a person.

And here’s a longer clipping about exercise research:

What’s supported by the research is: train hard. The rest is hard to prove. Lots of approaches work. There’s no justification for being committed to just one way. More research is needed on things like frequency of training and whether split or whole body training is best.

…looking at the evidence (in scientific studies) you find:

intensity matters – recruiting as many fibers as possible
one set per exercise
any sort of resistance seems OK (free weights, machines or bodyweight)
concentric, eccentric or isometric contractions all work
repetition speed is important in that you need to maintain tension on the muscles
rest between sets and exercises doesn’t matter much
full range of motion isn’t that important
doing endurance exercise at the same time doesn’t hold things back
muscles and parts of muscles grow at different rates
a few weeks off won’t make your gains disappear and might help when you train again.

Your reward from having commonplace books far outweighs your effort in creating them.