Wayne MacPhail is a journalist living in Hamilton.
In 1584, the then-12-year-old English poet John Donne was studying at the University of Oxford along with his younger brother, Henry. This was when the university was just beginning to get its time-burnished reputation. The revered Bodleian Library had not yet opened its doors. But every day, in his tiny Hart Hall room, the young Donne was creating his own private Bodleian in a bit of technology called a commonplace book, or a commonplacer.
Donne, who grew up to be the priapic poet and preacher we know him as today, was not the first to create a commonplace book. But, when you look up the word “commonplacer” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll see he was the first to use the word, in a sermon in 1631. So, what did people like Donne do with their commonplacers?
They wrote as they read, widely and deeply. They jotted down scripture, aphorisms, quotes, turns of phrase, gossip, poems, japes and words of wisdom. They let that harvested jumble of disparate brain fodder clang together in a cacophony and chorus of ideas that echoed down the long halls of human thought. The commonplace book was their way to burn the knowledge of the world into their brains, one inkwell dip at a time.
From the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century, almost any intellectual with a desk, a candle and a quill pen had one. John Milton, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Michael Faraday, Mary Wollstonecraft and, later, Virginia Woolf and W.H. Auden all did. It was as essential as a smartphone is today. And, in their own way, like smartphones, the small books put a world of wisdom at their owner’s fingertips.
Milton’s commonplace book contains notes on 90 authors in five languages, and, after his wife left him, exhaustive notes on bad marriages. Newton’s books were written in tight, tiny script describing recipes for making coloured pigments. Faraday’s were meticulous, Locke’s anal-retentive, and Coleridge’s madcap and sprawling.
Myron Groover, an archives and rare books librarian at McMaster University, says that for the early modern literati, commonplace books were a personal, physical way of synthesizing and memorizing what was read. “The act of writing is at least half of the point,” he says. He compares commonplace books to the “memory palaces” classical orators used to recall long speeches by imagining a room or building with objects linked to certain associations. He even likens commonplace books to the cabinets of curiosities collectors used to house and categorize the wonders and oddities of the natural world. “A commonplace book was, in a way, a cabinet of curiosities for the mind,” he says.
Early modern readers had limited access to books, and even the largest libraries at the time contained only a couple of thousand texts at best. Readers literally didn’t know where their next book was coming from. “Many people were travelling to read from other people’s libraries. And so in that sense, having an extractive but also synthetic apparatus for taking knowledge with you when you leave becomes really, really important,” Mr. Groover says. Having your own private Bodleian was your golden ticket to glide up the social ladder.
“If you want to attain that level of mobility and source fluency that’s going to permit you to effortlessly quote Pindar or Horace or have the best bon mot in learned company, you need to invest time in being able to do that. And commonplace books are a tangible evidence of those kinds of investments,” Mr. Groover says.
That was certainly true of John Donne. His poetry and sermons are a wild intermingling of his voracious readings, imagery, imagination, scripture, mythology and metaphors. And, as Katherine Rundell writes in Super-Infinite, her recent biography of the poet, “Donne wouldn’t be Donne if he hadn’t lived in a commonplacing era; it nurtured his collector’s sensibility, hoarding images and authorities. He had a magpie mind obsessed with gathering.”
Other magpie minds filled their commonplace books as they read from a wide variety of writers on philosophy, theology, poetry, mathematics or science. Picture a gardener plucking the best blossoms from her flowerbeds to create the perfect bouquet. In fact, the commonplace book had a medieval antecedent called a “florilegium,” or a gathering of flowers. A florilegium was a collection of religious texts and commentaries used by devout scholars for contemplation.
And, to continue the floral metaphor back even further to ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote in a letter to his friend Lucilius that readers should “follow the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in.” That’s pretty much how Marcus Aurelius, writing a century later than Seneca, created his Meditations. His florilegium blossomed into an international bestseller, well after Aurelius himself wilted.
It’s no surprise Romans followed Seneca’s advice. The Latin verb legere means “to read.” But it also means “to collect” and “to gather.” And, come the Renaissance, when Latin and Greek were revered and the works and advice of the wise men of antiquity were rediscovered, commonplace books flourished.
As historian Robert Darnton wrote in the New York Review, “early modern Englishmen read in fits and starts and jumped from book to book. They broke texts into fragments and assembled them into new patterns … Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities.”
The “new patterns” emerged not just because the passages from dozens of different writers intermixed on the handwritten pages. The commonplace books were also often carefully indexed. The result was an almost hypertextual collection of co-mingled notes gathered over years or decades of study. Browsing through the history of commonplace books, you can watch as readers struggle to synthesize, memorize, winnow and impose some order on a growing hubbub of ideas.
Contrast that to how many of us read today. If we find an article of interest on the web, we might bookmark it; a PDF we want to reference gets tossed into a folder on our computer; pictures of decor ideas might make it to Pinterest. And novels? Save the most indelible, they’re disposable, their plots forgotten or mashed together in memory. Perhaps we make notes for book group meetings. But those are linear, isolated, and don’t butt heads on the page with the ideas of other authors we’ve read, even in the same year, let alone years later. Most of us don’t have a way of recording the connections between, say, the two dozen recent Second World War novels we’ve read featuring valiant code-breaking or sniper-eyed heroines pitted against a brutal Germany.
We are reading very differently than our ancestors. They were hunter-gatherers of literary nutrition. In comparison, we merely graze, sleepily. We treat the verb “to read” in its most limited sense of its Latin root.
Mr. Groover thinks that might be because, for us, the stakes are so low. “You may lament that you didn’t personally record your observations as you went through and read things, but you could go back and get any of those books again and go through them,” he says. “The more books you have access to, the less you feel that you need to make note of them.”
At the end of the 19th century, commonplace books were on the way out. Yes, luminaries such as novelist Virginia Woolf and poet W.H. Auden kept them – in fact, in 1970, Auden published A Certain World – A Commonplace Book, which he called “a map of my planet.” But, the commonplacers were no longer, well, common.
But, the 20th century ushered in a new way to create commonplace books that had little to do with paper, quill pens and social climbing.
In 1945, former presidential science adviser and engineer Vannevar Bush wrote a piece for The Atlantic called As We May Think. In it, Bush imagines a microfilm-based device called the Memex, with projection screens, a stylus and an ability to cross-link documents. Two years before the transistor, Bush described a device that was half-computer, half commonplace book for the atomic age.
It was an update to a concept that had existed for centuries, a cabinet that could contain cross-indexed ideas. In the late 1660s, German polymath Gottfried Leibniz owned a “note closet” in which he hung hundreds of notes on metal rods as if they were so many orange-skinned ducks in a Chinese BBQ’s window. It was literally Mr. Groover’s “cabinet of curiosities for the mind.”
In 1960, an ADD-haunted visionary named Ted Nelson imagined a computer system that reconceptualized Bush’s cross-linked documents as a Coleridge-inspired opium dream. Nelson called it Project Xanadu. He wrote of a cloud-based worldwide electronic publishing network that “intertwingled” versions of “zippered” documents in an orgy of cross-pollination, not unlike Coleridge’s own commonplace books. Mr. Nelson never got his idea out of his feverishly fertile mind and into the clouds. Still, the seeds were planted.
Eight years later, in December, 1968, American electrical engineer Douglas Engelbart presented what tech journalist Steven Levy called “The Mother of All Demos” at a computer conference in San Francisco. For the first time, the audience saw computer windowing, the mouse and a method for cross-linking electronic documents. On stage, the composed, cucumber-cool Mr. Engelbart was connecting the past to the future, tipping his hat to commonplace books and his hand to what he imagined the future of information gathering would be.
It would take more than two decades for Mr. Engelbart’s and Mr. Nelson’s ideas, filtered through British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee’s mind, to become the global commonplace book we now know as the World Wide Web.
Meanwhile, a German social scientist, Niklas Luhmann, was busily gathering research for his work on social systems. He used a method called zettelkasten (slip boxes) to collect and carefully cross-index ultimately 90,000 index cards. Mr. Luhmann had refined a way of keeping a sort of exploded commonplace book that had been evolving for centuries. The system allowed him to write 70 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Over the unfolding decades, the ideas of Bush, Nelson, Englebart, and Luhmann would come together inside the personal computer to create fertile ground for a new kind of digital commonplace book.
And, in the past few years, perhaps fuelled by the isolation of COVID-19, the idea of creating digital commonplace books has caught fire. In the dry corners of the web, folks gather to discuss personal knowledge management (PKM). Computer-based note-taking apps with names like Roam, Bear, Notion, Craft and Obsidian have sprung up like virus variants. And, like the early modern literati, academics, readers and knowledge workers are using these applications to forge complex “second brains” for the ideas, articles and snippets they collect as they hunt and gather across the web and their libraries.
One of the most popular “second brain” applications, Obsidian, is Canadian. It was created, in 2020, by two former University of Waterloo computer science students, Erica Xu and Shida Li. Ms. Xu had been deep into the online world-building game Minecraft at the time and was taking copious notes. “I just wanted to make something that would help me,” Ms. Xu says. “I didn’t really expect it would become so popular.” But popular it is. About a half-million folks have downloaded it in the past two years. And the name? Ms. Xu says she was inspired by her time toiling in the trenches of Minecraft. “I thought Obsidian was an appropriate name because it’s durable and beautiful. The process of lava cooling into obsidian makes me think of hot thoughts that get crystallized into cold binary code on the hard disk.”
Alex Nelson, a 28-year-old classical guitar student at the University of North Carolina living with ADHD, finds that Obsidian maps exactly to the way his mind works. “I’m always seeing connections when I speak with people,” he says. Mr. Nelson has more than 2,000 files in his Obsidian second brain, all interconnected. “When I explore my notes, I re-encounter my ideas and I’m able to reframe them and formulate insights. It’s like a storage battery for my thoughts.”
I’ve been feeling like I could use a battery like that. So, at the beginning of the year, I decided I was going to be more intentional about my reading. I wanted not just to read, but to read, recall and relate what I’d read. I wanted to be just like John Donne – well minus the chronic illness, penury and prison stay. So, I’ve been using Obsidian. I pressed it into service to write this article, linking one idea, one passage to another, and another. I’ve found it invaluable. It’s a different way to process content. It’s ironically old-fashioned. It’s the way humans used to read.
In a reading room in the Mills Memorial Library at McMaster, Myron Groover is showing me what that looked like. He’s lovingly opened a selection of commonplace books on a low table. Centuries-old words are still bold in iron gall ink. He points to one index entry after another on a tan page, admiring the writer’s curious mind. “It’s like watching a bee move from flower to flower,” he says, echoing Seneca. The writer of that commonplace book was making the best use of his century’s technology, which is just what I’m trying to do.
“I think one of the great hopes of the digital milieu is that information plenty should lead us to new modes of synthesis and knowledge production,” Mr. Groover says. “We should be thinking about what new things can we do with that abundance, that we couldn’t have done before.”
That’s probably just how young John Donne felt, surrounded by the literary riches of Oxford in the 1580s. And Donne gives us one final proof of the value of commonplace books. Most of his magnificent poetry didn’t survive because it was published in his time. It’s survived the centuries only because it’s been carefully reassembled from the copies his friends, fans and family made in, you guessed it, their own commonplace books.