The business of Education, in respect of knowledge, is not, as I think, to perfect a learner in all or any one of the sciences; but to give his mind that disposition and those habits that may enable him to attain any part of knowledge he shall stand in need of in the future course of his life. – John Locke
Ever since the printing press was invented people have worried about being overwhelmed by a deluge of information.
Making sense of it all, gaining understanding, organizing and recalling it when needed – these were the concerns of intellectuals in the centuries following the widespread availability of books.
A commonplace book is one solution to this problem.
How do you read?
If you’re anything like me, there is information everywhere you turn.
From the results of google searches to the increasing availability of digitized books and open access papers, there is a huge quantity of information out there and it’s increasing all the time.
One way of dealing with this is to give up – give the algorithms the power to select what you should read.
The algorithms are there to serve you, to give you what you want – but will they give you what you need or more of what they think you prefer?
Sometimes you have to follow a trail to discover what you need to learn, and that means going from source to source and having your own means of recording, organizing, accessing and recalling information.
But, with so many different sources, how do you do this?
John Locke and his commonplace book
John Locke was an English physician and philosopher who published a method in French of indexing and keeping commonplace books in 1685 that lasted for the next few centuries.
In 1706, this method was published in English as A new method of making common-place-books after his death.
The brief document sets out Locke’s method, which starts by telling you to first just read through a book.
If you find something interesting that you want to extract later, mark the page on a piece of paper, but don’t stop the flow of your reading.
You should only starting thinking about extracting and copying out passages on the second reading and, even then, copy only the things that are new, that add something to your knowledge rather than sentences that sound good but say little.
In other words, create a filter for material right at the beginning, try and record only what is really worth having to hand later or you risk simply being overwhelmed with material once again.
I think this is good advice but not easy to follow – but I suppose you could make it a habit.
The writer Ryan Holiday, as an alternative, talks about marginalia, underlining books and writing in the margins.
This is not something you can do with an online book or a website.
You could screenshot the page or copy the text into a file but again, the ease of recording increases the amount of stuff you have.
Whatever approach you take, the thing to recognize is that your first job is not to accumulate but to filter, to select what is worth keeping rather than keeping everything.
The next, and probably most unique thing, about Locke’s method is his index.
The index is created on two facing pages and you write out the letters of the alphabet subdivided by the vowels, A and then A,E,I,O,U and so on.
It’s easier to see this in the image from the book below.
A couple of interesting points, Locke suggests missing out K, Y and W because you can use C, I and U and Q only needs one line because it’s always followed by U.
Locke’s advice is to keep a bound commonplace book and so the next element is to number the pages.
Then, you start making notes.
Say you come across a passage you like and want to record, the first thing to do is select the topic this relates to, what Locke calls a “Head”.
The thing about this head is to choose something that will lead you to the right section of your book later.
For example, I find that whenever I read a Terry Pratchett book there are passages I’d like to copy out later.
I could select from his series and use the topic “Discworld” or stick with the author’s last name and go with “Pratchett”.
Choose a way of grouping subjects that works for you and stick with it.
Taking Pratchett as an example, then, as your first entry, choose the first set of blank facing pages and write the head “Pratchett” on the left, before the margin.
Then make your notes after the margin.
This way, you’ll always be able to easily skim the heads and see where passages start.
Here’s an example from Locke.
Then you record where the section is in the Index by using a combination of the first letter and first vowel.
In Pratchett’s case, this means you would add the page number to the line PA in the index.
Then, you use these two facing pages to record all the topics that start with the combination of first letter P and first vowel A, such as Painting, Palaces and Plans.
When you finish a set of facing pages then you continue that particular combination on the next free set, and record the page number of the next starting point on the previous set and vice versa.
This way, you can go through the book by topic following the page numbers or jump to a particular point by looking in the index.
If you’ve come to the end of a facing set and the immediate next two pages are blank, you just turn over and carry on, noting a “V” for the continuation.
So, what this method does is give you a way to read widely and copy your material into your book by topic, while also providing a fairly compact indexing system that balances ease of recording with the effort needed to skim and find the material you want by topic.
But, will it work for you?
E.M. Forster and his commonplace book
The English fiction writer. E.M. Forster started keeping a commonplace book in 1925, at the age of 46.
He started doing this when he inherited a 12 inch by 8 inch bound book with around 400 pages that had been bought in 1804 by John Jebb, a rector who was going to use it as a commonplace book.
Jebb only used 18 pages or so and bequeathed it on until eventually it came to Forster, who recorded that he was now continuing it on October 21st, 1925.
Now, what’s interesting is that Jebb had created the indexing method using Locke’s system as described above but Forster doesn’t seem to have been aware of how to use it.
On his first page, we are told, he made three general entries “Commonplace”, “Isolation”, “Resentment”.
That already breaks the indexing approach set out by Locke and Forster clearly already hated “this awful arrangement by topics”.
Forster instead just wrote although he started the first word of the entry in the margin, like Jebb did, but let go of the topic structure.
Jebb, on the other hand, apparently didn’t make much use of the index, while Forster listed 196 entries by subject.
Forster, it seems, used his book not just to record material he wanted to recall later but also observations and thoughts – and made use of the blank pages and the freedom they provided to put boxes around sentences, put content side by side, draw connections between them, add color and use text styles for emphasis.
It’s also a notebook for thinking, not just a record of material.
Know the rules so you can break them
I thought this was an interesting example of how thought flows through the ages.
You have words and thoughts from 1685 that affect how a book is structured in 1804 which is then picked up and used and changed all the way until its last entry on November 11th, 1968.
Forster’s book was in use for nearly 164 years and the ideas in use for 283 years.
The book was eventually published as Commonplace book by E.M. Forster, edited by Philip Gardner.
My first response, on seeing the index, was unease – it seems regimented and organized, the opposite of what I do naturally.
It seems Forster shared that view.
Then again, maybe it’s because I am not organized that I have piles of paper, notebook after notebook with material that is not organized and accessible.
The thing with material locked in a rigid, sequential structure like a notebook is that, as Robert Pirsig writes in Lila, “when any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is deadly.”
But, that has to do with locking away your ability to think, but not about recording the original material in an accessible way.
And original material has to do with what you read and what you think.
So, how would I use a commonplace book now?
I would start with a single notebook for recording notes from what I read and my own thoughts.
I would create the index and try to follow a topic structure for the material that I was copying down exactly.
For general notes, I would just write daily, letting the material flow, a little like a scientific notebook or any other daily record of work.
I think it would also make sense to have a topic list somewhere, perhaps on a couple of pages on their own.
The thing that Locke’s structure allows you to do is hack the sequential, bound notebook to create a more fluid was to access what you want by using the indexing structure.
Which means you can then benefit from the most powerful aspect of the bound notebook – which is that there is no filing, you can simply put it on a shelf and start a new one.
I find that when I come across loose sheets of paper I struggle to keep them – they’re messy and unfiled and it seems easier to throw them out.
Throwing out a book is much harder – especially a book with material you want to remember and that has been indexed in a way that makes that possible and easy.
Now, here’s the takeaway.
Locke’s method is just that – a method that worked for him and that he put down.
Over the years, that method was used and transmitted and forgotten and rediscovered and used in unintended ways.
The beauty of the Internet is that you can find all that out there.
But you have to thread the pieces together, make sense of things in a way that works for you.
And then you need to adapt that method to your circumstances, to the things that interest you and that you want to study, building on the suggestions of people that had similar problems before you came along.
And if you do that maybe you’ll also have a way of working that will make life easier for you for decades.
After all, Forster started his book at the age of 46 and then kept on going for 43 years.
How long are you planning to keep learning?
For me, that’s hopefully only going to happen when I stop living.