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Real Commonplace Books: A Series

Updated: 4 hours ago


In the spring of 2023, the authors of this series — Liam Beran, a third-year English student, and Libby Markgraf, a fourth-year Economics student, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison — signed up for a class on Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem, The Faerie Queene, with Professor Joshua Calhoun. We entered the coursework new to Spenser and without any conceptions of what the course would entail. We were introduced to the idea of commonplacing on Syllabus Day. Little did we know that we’d continue to engage in this practice a year later and would end up collaborating on a public humanities project about this journey.   

So what is commonplacing? A commonplace book is a structured collection of quotes and thoughts curated by an individual, usually handwritten in a journal or textual object. 

In creating a commonplace book, we were bound by the rules of our class assignment. Structurally, our commonplace books were expected to conform to a specific format including a title page, table of contents, a defined number of thematic headings, an index, and an average quota of entries per week. 

We organized section headings like “Inside jokes from our friends” and “Occasionally mean thoughts about the people I love.” We kept a watchful eye (and attentive ears) for the value in a stray sentence, text message, or lyric. We shared our commonplace books with our classmates and with friends outside the class, remembering fondly the occasion in which we wrote a quote or the reason it resonated so strongly.  With our classmates, we quickly developed conventions and community around the practice: phrases like “commonplaceable” and “that’s going in my commonplace book” became refrains in our class and out-of-class discussions. 

Assignment prompt showing lists of detailed requirements for student commonplace books
Section from Prof. Calhoun's Commonplace Book assignment for ENGL433, Spring 2023

Over the course of the semester, the creativity in the commonplacing process gained meaning for us— overburdened, overstressed college students with strict guidelines for what our assignments should be. Initially, writing down quotes under section headings could be tedious; leafing through pages because you forgot to bookmark where some fantastically fitting idea lies was frustrating. But our commonplace books quickly became spaces for freedom — to whatever degree allowed by the assignment’s constraints — and expression.

At the end of our first semester of commonplacing, we realized that many of our assignments in college classes usually ask us to pick a side of something, whether there is a middle ground or not, and then defend our stance. This assignment challenged that narrative, because the final product was a middle ground.  One where a peace can exist when you just look at it for what it is: Spenser, a really old dead guy, hanging out with Taylor Swift, a modern day superstar.

Differing conceptions 

Maintaining our commonplace books involved cherry-picking quotes from assigned readings and outside media. Doing this simplified the meaning in a given quote;  we often felt they were less about the content and more about fitting quotes under a section header. We found ourselves wanting to push back against the constraints. For instance, what happens when you find a quote that could equally fit under two headings? How much can we stretch the meaning of a quote — even if we know it really indicates something else — just to meet our quota for the week?

A roughly 5x8 inch notebook lies open on a wood table. Both pages are filled with quotes from varied sources.
Libby's class Commonplace Book

Our desire to do so mirrored how commonplacers have acted throughout centuries. William H. Sherman,  a literary scholar at the Warburg Institute in London, notes the sliding structural formality in many surviving commonplace books:

[V]ery few volumes kept to their original schemes with absolute strictness: in some cases, the compiler’s needs or frames of reference changed, and in others the manuscript changed directions (both literally and figuratively) as it changed hands.”

There’s a consistent tension between the commonplace books of theory and the ones we keep in practice. Earle Havens, a professor and curator of rare books and manuscripts at John Hopkins University, struggled with the same phenomenon when selecting commonplace books to display in an exhibit at Yale’s Beinecke Library: prescriptive instructional books about commonplacing, which draw from Greek and Roman models and Renaissance theories of learning, are far outnumbered in the archives by the hodgepodge commonplace books of practice. In his book, Commonplace Books: A History of Manuscripts and Printed Books from Antiquity to the Twentieth Century, he writes that commonplacers’ imperfect practices often appear in their books.

“Here the broad view is taken that commonplace books were ever as eclectic and unpredictable as their compilers, and that they rarely corresponded precisely to any one prescribed model or consistent method for any length of time.”

It’s a double-edged sword: we read with a careful eye, but that eye was fixed on how best to extract our desired meaning from the text — and on completing an assignment worth 30% of the course grade.

Our commonplace books for the Spenser class more closely resembled Havens’ theory-based archetype. While those structural constraints molded us into more critical readers and listeners, they also meant that messages — the content of a given quote — would be contorted and calcified into a subhead’s mold as we wrote them in.  For example:

“‘I don’t know what to do with it.’ ‘With what?’ ‘All the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it, now.’”

This quote from Phoebe Waller-Bridges’ 2016 dramedy Fleabag fits equally well under “Love (and a lack of it)” or “An Inexorable Sense of Despair,” but a commonplacer in our class had to choose just one section and oftentimes would prioritize the less dense section, even if the quote would better fit under the other one. 

Gif of actor Phoebe Waller-Bridges speaking the line quoted in the post
Quote from Fleabag as displayed on a Tumblr page

It’s a double-edged sword: we read with a careful eye, but that eye was fixed on how best to extract our desired meaning from the text — and on completing an assignment worth 30% of the course grade.

Frustrating as it could be to commonplace to the constraints of an assignment prompt, the process elucidated new meanings from time to time: “conversations” between quotes and works that would never be considered in the same breath, themes and ideas which resonate among bodies of literature and media but which we might not notice on first glance; Edmund Spenser chats about friendship and loneliness with indie pop star Japanese Breakfast under the subhead “Anti-Socialites”; a random bar-goer and Moses (of Genesis fame) discuss transformation and betterment. They are ideas that isolated experiences can’t always bring forth, revealed only when viewed in unity.

What about the ones that don’t fit?

An upper-class Maine woman by the name of Daisy dots her commonplace book from 1905 with jokes and references from newspaper clippings alongside drawings and photos of her family. It’s easy to see a sardonic, carefree attitude permeating her work.  Similarly, numerous writers kept “friendship albums” that held solicited quotes from their companions detailing the value of the friendship between them. Are those commonplace books? They’re a collection of divided quotes, but where are the section headings or indexes? 

This tension runs throughout all the commonplace books — or commonplace-esque texts — we studied. Havens’ commonplace book is physical, but it is also a series of theories and systems which embedded themselves in modern conceptions of gathering and displaying knowledge, what Sherman calls “a means of participation in a common language and outlook.”  

We consume so much crude information these days — the short-form videos begging for attention during a commute, the podcasts and music in our ears, the tweets and posts that light up our eyes. Extracting meaning out of any of the noise is difficult. Commonplacing makes sense of that information overload, with a carefully deployed measure of construction and distillation showing the mundane, hidden messages that dot our lives.

In the same way we grapple with the “information explosion” of today by disconnecting or organizing, Tiago Forte writes that educated persons at the dawn of the printing press used commonplace books as a coping mechanism for a world rapidly increasing in literacy and connectivity. 

So what really is a commonplace book? To commonplace the words of Supreme Court Justice Stewart, describing his test to identify obscenity in a 1964 case: “I know it when I see it.”

So what really is a commonplace book? To commonplace the words of Supreme Court Justice Stewart, describing his test to identify obscenity in a 1964 case: “I know it when I see it.” 

What to expect going forward

To find some new ideas in the harmony (and discord) of commonplacing ideals, habits, and practices, we’ve embarked on this series of digital essays, which will explore commonplacing through women’s voices, social media, and authorship.

By reading a commonplace book, you learn the practices authors take prior to starting the writing process: you trace their work back to other sources that inspired it. You enter the library of the commonplacer’s life, discovering what works resonate with them, what connections excite and motivate them. You discover the novel ways they connect through ecology or social media — topics which will color some of our future posts — and enrich your own knowledge accordingly.

About the Authors & the Project

“Real Commonplace Books: A Series” is a Spring 2024 Independent Study on commonplace books — many of which are contained in UW-Madison Special Collections.

Liam Beran, a fourth-year English major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has a passion for language and is seeking a certificate in French. Outside of school, he spends much of his time editing articles for UW-Madison’s oldest student newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, and is an active distance runner with the Wisconsin Track Club. 

Libby Markgraf is a senior majoring in Economics with certificates in History and Data Science. Her interest in history began during a papermaking event on Library Mall with Holding History, and she further explored the field through Professor Calhoun's English courses, "Shakespeare, Sort Of" and "Spenser" which introduced her to Special Collections. 

Thanks to UW-Madison's Professor Joshua Calhoun (Assoc. Prof., English Department; Affiliate Faculty, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies), & to the Holding History program for hosting this bookish, bloggish conversation about Commonplace Books.



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