Commonplace notebooks

Continuing my train of thought from On knowledge systems and Push and pull, today I want to dive into something called a commonplace book. (For the third time: no denouement today.) In line with more modern language usage, I’m going to prefer commonplace notebook; books are today commonplace, and we use the word “notebook” for the ones we create privately.

Settle in, this is about to get tangential.

I first encountered this idea at 8am, November 13th, 2020. Literally. I’ve never heard of the idea of a “commonplace book” previously. And here I am in the midst of finally pulling on a thread which I’ve been calling a quest for a knowledge system… trying to solve a problem which is as yet ill formed. I’ve been reading through the entire Farnam Street web site; it’s like 5,000 non-trivial web pages skimming a few every day for well over a year. This November 13th a little before 8am I happen to reach, John Locke’s Method of Organizing Common Place Books. Which, probably is not worth clicking through. First off, “common” modifies “place” so we can drop “common” without fundamentally changing the meaning—so sayeth grammar. Therefore Locke’s method is for organizing books about places. I very nearly didn’t even skim it. But I did. And realized it’s his method for organizing commonplace books. Oh my god Becky, that’s completely different. Wait, what’s a commonplace book? (There’s a link in that post about Locke’s method.) POW!

Commonplace books are personal knowledge libraries; notebooks full of collected ideas and bits of wisdom all mixed up together. Here, we take a look at their history and benefits.

~ from https://fs.blog/2014/07/networked-knowledge-and-combinatorial-creativity/

Am I on Candid Camera? This is so apropos of my recent thinking, it’s H.P. Lovecraft level eery.

Zooming out…

The knowledge system I’m seeking is not simply a repository into which I want to toss everything. For example, Evernote is not a solution that will work. It’s too easy to put things in. (Likewise for any home-grown version I might cook up with documents or cloud storage.) Sure, Evernote and other solutions are eminently searchable—that’s a good thing. But I continue to avoid such tools because… well, because I don’t want simply a giant collection of everything. I don’t want to simply amass everything I’ve ever been exposed to. (We already have an Internet. We don’t need Craig’s Internet assembled within the other.) But, I’ll call these desirables the “power” features.

I’m intrigued by the commonplace notebook solution as it requires a good bit of effort to add things. Effort is required to evaluate each new idea to be added. Effort is required to see how it “hangs together with” the rest of what I know, at the time when I encounter the new thing. This suggests individual, manual and mental labor, [meaning I have to do everything, possibly even including manually writing things down on paper] is also a desirable feature.

Some combination of those “power” and “manual” features feels like a sweet spot.

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