17th CENTURY Commonplace book

Note Taking, or Rediscovering the Wheel

I like reading and I read quite a lot. But I am not good at remembering and this deficiency is only made worse by the constant distraction (self-inflicted or not) of online content, social media, apps, push notifications, email and so on. So recently, I started making a concerted effort to take notes of things. The incentive for that was my failed Facebook book club – I realized that to be able to comment on what I read, I need to write my thoughts down. Otherwise, I remembered the plot, but all the other more insightful (or simply a bit less obvious) observations went “poof” in a matter of minutes. When I started to write things down, I also thought about them more. Instead of just moving on, I paused to reflect and describe what I felt. And then I started taking similar notes at work, around the house, while taking the kids swimming…

I read Where Good Ideas Come From and had an epiphany (or what its author would call serendipity) – I was reinventing the commonplace book. I had never heard of the commonplace book. When I was getting my fill of 19th and 20th century literature and science, I was still in Bulgaria, so the term must have been translated to a “diary” or just plain notebook. But what a fascinating idea. Have a notebook to write things down. Not a digital to-do app, a mind-map tool or an email, but an actual notebook.

What’s my point? I am not sure. What I know is that if I did not have my newly created “commonplace” book, I would probably have already forgotten things like:

  • David Sedaris’ brilliant New Yorker essay on going through the hassle of immigration bureaucracy. The excerpt I jotted down was this vivid and hilarious description of his passport photo: “The picture in my stolen one [passport] was not half bad. But in the new one I looked like a penis with an old man’s face drawn on on it.”
  • My own reflections on how crowdsourcing resembles the creation of folk art. Grimm’s tales are just the recorded version of a story, to which everyone contributed, changed the plot, the ending, or the name of the prince.
  • How LinkedIn editorial attempts and posts like “5 tips to succeed” and “10 things to avoid” remind me of Dear Abby advice columns for people who are looking for a job or marketers (who else goes to LinkedIn?)

This may sound like rediscovering the wheel. But I bet for the people that actually had forgotten about it, rediscovering the wheel was huge. Bigger than sliced bread. What is sliced bread? Write it down less you forget.

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