This quarter I’m requiring the students in my eighteenth-century literature class to maintain a commonplace book. A commonplace book is a book into which you copy passages from your reading that you would like to keep on hand for reference, passages that are striking for their insight, their style, their beauty, their humor, or their embodiment of something significant.

Our system of commonplacing is based on a 1799 “improvement” to John Locke‘s method for indexing a commonplace book. As this 1799 text reads,

The man who reads, and neglects to note down the essence of what he has read; the man or woman who sees, and omits to record what he has seen; the man who thinks, and fails to treasure up his thoughts in some place, where may readily find them for use at any future period; will often have occasion to regret an omission, which such a book, as is now offered to him, is calculated to remedy.

John Locke’s “new method of making common-place books” sought “to increase the amount of information one could annotate in the notebook, while also speeding up its retrieval,” by creating a system of indexing the book’s quotations. He proposed that each topic to be included in the commonplace book be represented by a keyword that is then reduced to a two-letter code. These two letters were the first letter of the word followed by the first vowel. The word, “Passion,” for example, would be represented by the code “Pa;” the word, “Order,” would be represented by the code “Oe;” and the word, “Art,” would be represented by the code “Aa,” since it has only one vowel. Entries in the commonplace book would be indexed according to these codes.

Whenever he found a passage that he wanted to include in his notebook, Locke would assign it a keyword (and thus a code). He would write the keyword at the top of a page. He would then reserve that page for entries on that topic. When he had a passage with a different key word that he wanted to record, he would go to the next free page, write the word at the top, and then transcribe the passage.

If Locke wanted to write down the following quotation from Richard Hooker:

Happiness is that estate whereby we attain, so far as possibly may be attained, the full possession of that which simply for itself is to be desired, and containeth in it after an eminent sort of the contentation of our desires, the highest degree of all our perfection.

He would open his commonplace book to the first clear page (assuming he hadn’t already started a section on “happiness”). Imagining that the first available page was page 16, for example, Locke would write “Happiness” at the top of the page and transcribe the quotation. Next, he would turn to the index, find the section of the index grid for “Ha,” and record the number 16 there.

If he later found a quote on harmony that he liked, he would repeat the process. If the next available page was now page 20, he would write “Harmony” at the top, transcribe the quote, and then record the number 20 in the “Ha” section of the index.

Locke’s method became very popular. As Lucia Dacome notes, “Many eighteenth-century compilers relied on it in order to reduce the volume of their notebooks and save time. Some were lured by the promise that this technique could also help them to order their minds and thus turn them into better people.” (“Noting the Mind: Commonplace Books and the Pursuit of the Self in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” Journal of the History of Ideas 65.4 (2005): 604.) By the end of the century, however, many compilers had found fault with his method, since it did not allow the writer to recall which topics were on which page, just that topics coded “Ha” were on pages 16 and 20, for example. Guides to commonplacing therefore began to propose an “improved” system of indexing, one that allowed compilers to record their keywords in their index along with the relevant page numbers. In this way, a compiler could find his or her entries even more quickly.

Maintaining a commonplace book was thought to have a beneficial effect on the mind. As Isaac Watts wrote:

We should inure our Minds to Method and Order continually; and when we take in any fresh Ideas, Occurrences and Observations, we should dispose of them in their proper Places, and see how they stand and agree with the rest of our Notions on the same Subject: As a Scholar would dispose of a new Book on a proper Shelf among its kindred Authors; or as an Officer at the Post-house in London disposes of every Letter he takes in, placing it in the Box that belongs to the proper Road or County. In any of these Cases if things lay all in a Heap, the Addition of any new Object would encrease the Confusion; but Method gives a speedy and short Survey of them with Ease and Pleasure.

Or, as Dacome explains, “In eighteenth-century Britain order was a ubiquitous notion that served a moral and social as well as a practical agenda.” It was seen as a testament to the “divine design in nature” and was aligned with the period’s commitment to taste and politeness. Not surprisingly, then, the “practice of commonplacing … came to be regarded as capable of bringing together the order of learning and the methodizing of one’s thoughts, the pursuit of self-improvement, and the fashioning of the polite individual.” Dacome notes: “While collecting and ordering notes and thoughts, compilers also worked on their own intellectual, moral, and social edification” (615).

I’ve asked my students to keep this goal of achieving “intellectual, moral, and social edification” in mind as they select the quotations for their books, which have to be a bound notebook of some kind (not a spiral one). I’ve also asked that they find at least three quotes from our readings each week as well as additional quotes from other sources. And finally, I’ve asked that they spend about an hour a week on their books.

To help them organize their books, I have given them a reproduction of the 1799 text’s indexing system — they can just print it out and attach it to their books if they want. Many of them have chosen to do this, but almost as many of created their own indexes. Some are using Locke’s indexing method. I also provided them with a list of eighteenth-century key words, ones that pop up a lot in our reading or that I noticed in a quick glance through Jack Lynch’s edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary.

So far, this assignment has gone really well. We start each class by giving students an opportunity to read their favorite quotations from their books, first ones from our reading and then ones from other sources, which can be other eighteenth-century texts or sources from the student’s daily life — other classes, things they hear or see around them, etc.

I asked my students today what they thought of this assignment so far. Only a couple of them spoke up, but the response was good. As one of them said, it’s changed the way the read our assigned texts. Instead of “just reading,” they’re constantly looking for sentences they can put in their commonplace books. In other words, they’re actively reading, engaging in the text with a specific purpose in mind.

I’ve liked the assignment so well, that I’m thinking of making the graduate students in my Restoration literature seminar do it next quarter. I may even incorporate it into my Lesbian & Gay lit class!