Mario Villalobos

Starting a Commonplace Book

I’m journaling into four different tools, and they’re all different, all serving a singular purpose, and all very helpful and changing my life in their own way. Going in order of when in the day I journal in them: my Baron Fig Confidant notebook holds all my thoughts and notes about my novel; my Moleskine Classic Notebook serves as a private notebook for private thoughts; the Day One app helps me write down the three things I was most grateful for during the day; and finally, this blog serves as a record for whatever it is I’m trying to do nowadays.

I love journaling, and I love that I can express myself with all these various tools because they all serve the same purpose in very different and unique ways. For example, the pages on the Confidant notebook are blank and wider than most notebooks. That extra space emphasizes the horizontal axis more than the vertical, and that gels with how I see a novel being. Left to right, moving forward, like a timeline, expansive and with momentum. The classic Moleskine notebook has the band that keeps it shut, and that comforts me, especially with what I’m writing in it. Day One is always with me with its app on my phone, and not only is it super easy to start writing an entry, but it also captures metadata like the current weather and the music currently playing. So when I briefly write the three things I’m most grateful for, it also captures another tiny snapshot of my life that I can always reminisce about in the future. And then this blog has an audience, and all my thoughts are published on the internet for the world to stumble upon. That’s cool.

But there’s another notebook I want to start, and it’s one I’ve wanted to start for a long, long time. I’ve played around with it since I first started carrying a notebook, but it never stuck, and that’s the commonplace book. I won’t try to describe it; instead, I’ll let Ryan Holiday explain it:

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

Like I said, I’ve tried doing that with my first few notebooks but failed. I tried with the first four or so classic Moleskine notebooks I’ve owned, and I’ve even tried doing it digitally, and I’ve failed there, too. At first, I tried to make Evernote my commonplace book, but instead, it became this unwieldy, unorganized, and noisy repository for junk that I never referenced nor did the app make easy to peruse. I then tried creating text files for each book I’ve read and use those files as containers for all the sentences, passages, and thoughts I made and had, but that also became messy and impractical. Currently, this is what my books in my nvAlt database looks like:

As you can see, I appended the tag bookx in front of each book. The a-bookx tag just meant I needed to act on those notes, but really that tag seemed redundant to me since, in theory, I’m always supposed to act upon these notes in some way. The notes in the bottom of the app are the clippings generated from the Kindle, and those, as you can see, are messy and unreadable. I’ve tried developing workflows to clean them up, but I’ve found it’s easier and faster to clean them up manually. That’s still time consuming for a result that hasn’t really yielded me any results worth writing home about.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about buying yet another notebook or notebooks and using them as my commonplace book, a book whose sole purpose is to collect ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information I come across during my life of reading. And because I’m crazy, if and when I start doing this, I planned to go back through all my physical books and transcribe all the passages I’ve read into these notebooks. I planned to even print out all my text files and transcribe those as well. I also planned to do all of this while also using the notebooks immediately with the books I’m reading now. It’ll forego organization altogether, which I’m totally okay with, and which I think is the point to begin with. Ideas are supposed to connect with other ideas in random and unexpected ways, and that thought intrigues me.

Also, I want this to be hard and fun and rewarding and a habit I’ll develop and nourish for the rest of my life. Why? Well, I’m still thinking about that. But here’s one last screenshot of where my thoughts are on this at the moment: