Despite the fact that our attention spans seem to get shorter each passing day, humans are reading more than in our entire history. From our news to our entertainment to our work, many of us read most of the day, every day.
But to what end?
Do all the words we read give us a richer life? Or is the increase of information we consume having the reverse effect? In his classic How to Read A Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, Mortimer J. Adler well captures the issue of knowledge without understanding:
We do not have to know everything about something in order to understand it; too many facts are often as much of an obstacle to understanding as too few. There is a sense in which we moderns are inundated with facts to the detriment of understanding.
A statement for our times, despite being written decades before the Internet age began.
So, if a volume of words that comprise information does not necessarily lead to understanding, how do we ensure our reading gives value rather than just consuming our time? One way — perhaps the most important way — is to read with purpose. That is a broad topic on its own and deserving of its own space, but another quote from Adler when he describes reading as learning:
To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.
All this to say, if you’re going to read to learn, to be enlightened, it’s going to take more effort than just reading to be informed. And one great method of increasing your enlightenment is the practice of keeping a commonplace book.
What is it?
This concept has had a bit of a resurgence of late. Ryan Holiday may be the person who has brought the idea to our collective consciousness with his almost 4-year-old article How and Why to Keep A Commonplace Book. In the article, he gives a succinct definition of this object.
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.
He goes on to share exactly how he keeps his own commonplace book (books rather, as one fills up, you must move on to another) and how this practice has helped him — both in his career and life in general.
Since then, others have championed this practice, and some have made the attempt to bridge the gap between the analog and digital. We’ll get into this idea more in future posts, but for now, just note that people have been trying to create digital equivalents of what Holiday has kept in paper.
A couple of good examples are Diana Kimball and The Sweet Setup’s own Shawn Blanc. Diana made the attempt early in 2015 using a few familiar tools as the core of her setup. And Shawn recently shared an in-depth look at his own use of Ulysses. At its core, it’s a place for him to store all his writing, but he also uses it to share all the bits of writing he’s enjoyed or been inspired by.
And that’s the exact purpose of a commonplace book.
Why do it?
Before rushing off and creating your own commonplace book, or closing your browser tab and shunning these Luddite ideas, let’s talk about why someone would do this. Again, Holiday gives a good summary:
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.
Or, back to Adler, in order to be enlightened.
Again, we read a lot now. And there’s nothing worse than reading something good, then forgetting where you read it. A commonplace book is an attempt to capture the good writing we find in order to put it to some use later. For why read if not to be changed? And good writing deserves more than a passing glance. It takes meditation, time to pause and reflect, in order to bring true value from what we consume.
If that idea resonates with you, stay tuned! In a future post, we’ll share some ideas on how to put together your own commonplace book using some of our favorite Mac and web tools.
We have more useful workflow examples right here.