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About Commonplace Books

Commonplacing is the practice of copying passages, sentences, or lines from one’s reading into a separate book, called commonplace book. These can be non-literary sources (such as history) literary (including poetry and prose); either arranged by topic not. Commonplace books allow reader to keep record their reading, though what type for purpose has varied over time.

The practice of commonplacing can be traced back to Ancient Rome. The notion originates with Aristotle’s concept of ‘communes loci’ – highly transferable logical arguments – though it was with Roman philosopher Marcus Cicero that expanded the concept to include quotation. The Roman philosopher Seneca advised his readers to keep a commonplace book, encouraging them to “copy the bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then […] we could so blend those several flavors into a delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from what whence it came.”1 In the Middle Ages in Europe, the commonplace genre transformed into the florilegias, or “book of flowers” that held (primarily religious) aphorisms valued for their beauty and morals.2

In Early Modern Europe (a period sometimes referred to as the Renaissance), commonplaces books became a popular tool in educational spaces. They were primarily used as individual resources for using one’s reading to craft rhetorical arguments. As David Allan explains in Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England (2010), Early Modern commonplace books contained “sententia”—short sentences—which acted as “authoritative sources” and examples to be used for rhetorical arguments.3 The organization of Latin phrases and vernacular poetry under thematic headings emphasized the genre’s goal as a utilitarian reference.

Sarah Bulkeley began her commonplace book at the very end of the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century, the practice of commonplacing become more widespread, in part due to the publication of John Locke’s A New Method of a Common-Place-Book in 1706.4 Locke advises average readers of all age and sexes to keep their own commonplace books. His “plan” suggests readers organize their commonplace extracts by using an index with alphabetized topics, as show in figure 1. With Locke’s publication, the commonplace book moved from the classroom to the domestic sphere, becoming largely the province of women readers. According to William St Clair in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), upper middle-class women constituted the majority of commonplace-book-keepers by the second half of the century.5 These books could contain only extracts from reading, or they could also be weaved through with sketches, personal anecdotes, diary extracts, and even scraps of printed materials. Blurring generic boundaries with the diary and scrapbook, the commonplace book become more intimate and personalized compared to its Renaissance origins – at times, St Clair notes, even locked in order to maintain the keeper’s privacy. Even within this domestic context, however, the commonplace book held onto its central idea: the idea that the reader should take the knowledge found in their reading (knowledge that was distilled into short epigrams or a few lines of poetry) and collect it in an external book so that it could be used later, in their day-to-day lives. As St Clair argues, the commonplace book of the eighteenth century upheld the idea, influenced by the earlier rhetorical Renaissance commonplace books, that one collected epigrams from ones reading not just because they were “universally and perennially true,” but because they were useful, and could be applied to one’s real life. Eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century readers would have just been more likely than their Renaissance predecessors to collect quotations and passages about things relevant to their lives: such as advice on love and courtship, loss and death, or polite manners. 


Commonplace books were also being used as an education tool, though designed now for more general pupils across both sexes. We see this in the publishing of mass-produced printed commonplace books that blurred the line between commonplace book and anthology. Take, for example, the popular anthology Elegant Extracts, compiled by Vicesimus Knox and first published in 1784 (figure 2) 6. In the advertisement to the seventh edition, Knox writes that there is no doubt that the book, which is “abounding with entertainment and useful information, inculcating the purest principles of morality and religion, and displaying excellent models of style and language, must effectually contribute to the improvement of the rising generation in knowledge, taste, and virtue.” In order to offer both moral and educational guidance to the “rising generation,” Knox divides passages into six ‘books’ across three volumes: 1) Devotional and moral; 2) Didactic, descriptive, narrative pastoral; 3) Pindaric, Horatian, and other odes, including elegiac and funeral; 4) Dramatic; 5) Ballads, songs, and sonnets, and satirical and humorous pieces; and 5) Larger poems. As is evident from the sample page from “dramatic” extracts in figure 3, Knox identifies each passage as offering insight on a singular subject: the reader can find a passage on “beauty” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, as well as a passage on “solitude preferred to a court life, and the advantages of adversity” from the same play.

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Nineteenth-century and twenty-first century critics often argue that commonplace books—both the mass-produced printed versions and manuscript (handwritten) commonplace books kept by individual readers— became more popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of a rise in print production, which vastly increased the amount of material there was available for reading. As Knox writes, readers are faced with an alarming “shortness of time” in which to read all the literature currently available. Knox writes: “The art of printing has multiplied books to such a degree […] It becomes necessary, therefore, to read in the classical sense of the word, LEGERE, that is, to pick out, to select the most valuable and worthiest objects.”7 Knox’s description of a reader “picking out” the “most valuable and worthiest” parts of their reading suggests that, in his view, readers had to take a more active form of reading in a society where increasing reading material was becoming available: “picking out” the most cherished from an avalanche of print. While the extent of this trend has been contested, scholars have argued that reading practices did indeed change in the eighteenth century as print production increased, circulating libraries were opened, and literary rates increased. Rolf Engelsing argues that there was a “reading revolution” over the course of the century: a shift from the intensive reading and re-reading of a small selection of texts to faster, cursory reading of more numerous, and often more ephemeral, texts.8 Leah Price makes a similar argument about nineteenth-century readers in 2000, arguing that anthologies trained readers to pace themselves through an unmanageable bulk of print by sensing when to skip and where to linger, exemplifying a stop-and-start rhythm of reading.”9 Roger Chartier has also argued, in The Order of Books (1992), that changes in the formatting of printed matter increased this tendency to skim, skip, and commonplace. Chartier writes: “the greatest change in the way texts were cast into print between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, 'the definite triumph of white over black’ – that is, the introduction of breathing space on to the page by the use of more paragraphs to break up an uninterrupted continuous text […] The new publishers suggested a new reading of the same texts or the same genres, a reading that fragmented the text into separate units.”10

As the popularity of commonplace books grew, critics began to question the value of these isolated extracts. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the “collector of bright Parts, and Flowers… what tho’ his Head be empty, provided his Common-place-Book be full.”11 Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), despite printing “sentiments” from his three novels in a book titled A Collection of Moral Sentiments (1755), criticized men who, in the age of “Dictionary and Index-Learning,” “overcharge the Margins of [their] Books” with quotations and maxims, rather than think for themselves.12 In addition to this well-rehearsed argument that the commonplace-book-keeper was devoid of true learning, some critics also argued that extracting paragraphs from a text detracted from that original text. In his 1765 preface to Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson (1709- 1784) criticized readers who read “by select quotations” because, Johnson maintained, the author’s “real power is not shewn in the splendour of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and the tenour of his dialogue.”13 The fact that Johnson felt the need to argue that one should read an entire play by Shakespeare, rather than merely read quotations and passages taken from those plays, points to the ubiquity of commonplacing as a practice in eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain.


1 Letters from a Stoic, Letter LXXXIV, “On Gathering Ideas.”

2 Allen, David. Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

3 Allen, David. Commonplace Books and Reading in Georgian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

4 Locke, John. A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books. London: J. Greenwood, 1706.

5 St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

6 Vicesimus Knox. Elegant Extracts: A Copious Selection Of Instructive, Moral, And Entertaining Passages, From The Most Eminent Prose Writers. London: 1783.

7 St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

8 Engelsing, Rolf. Der Bürger als Leser: Lesergeschichte in Deutschland 1500-1800. Stuttgart: 1984.

9 Price, Leah. The Anthology and the Rise of the Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000: 12.

9 St Clair, William. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004: 68.

10 Chartier, Roger. “Communities of Readers.” The Order of Books. Trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

11Swift, Jonathan. Tale of a Tub. London: 1704.

12 See Samuel Richardson's Moral Sentiments (1755).12

13 Smallwood, Philip. Johnson's Critical Presence: Image, History, Judgment. Taylor & Francis: 2017.