Digitising Locke’s Commonplace Book: A Reflection

As I was flipping through Mark Towsey’s new monograph on Reading the Scottish Enlightenment, I came across a short, somewhat innocuous passage that had a quite profound effect upon me.

The eighteenth-century commonplace book thus became the indispensable tool of the critical reader, allowing him or her to negotiate a path through the “revolutionary” new world of extensive reading with “enforced and regulated intensity” – to avoid, in Dugald Stewart’s words, the detrimental “habit of extensive and various reading, without reflection”*

When reading through academic books, I have developed the (arguably bad) habit of treating books as the enemy; wresting from them their argument and key evidence in the most time-efficient manner possible. It’s not that I do not enjoy reading. On the contrary, it is one of my favourite activities. Instead, I simply have too many ‘work’ books to get through and too few hours in the day. If I find a book with an argument particularly relevant to my current work, I will slow down and work though it in a much friendlier manner, but generally speaking I am merely compiling short reviews in my mind, storing the information in a cranial file folder labelled general historiography.

But, as this particularly monograph is about how Georgian readers engaged with their reading material, I felt a pang of guilt at my haste in digesting the core arguments it presented. When I came upon the passage, I had only vague recollections of what precisely a commonplace book was, let alone the specific format advocated by Locke, but within a few moments it became clear.

Locke’s Commonplace Book was a single location for a reader to record passages from and reflections about their reading, organised in a thematic manner rather than by chronology or title. A brief but excellent description is available at Ilya’s Common-place Blog, who evidently discovered and explored the concept in a way very similar to myself.

After reading her description of Locke’s indexing system, and reviewing the original instructions, I began to consider how best to integrate a commonplace book into my life. It came to me in a flash: sorting and indexing reflections thematically was the 18th century equivalent of tagging, which I already use in my blogs and, more importantly, Evernote.

A quick Google search revealed I was not alone in my analysis. Ezra Klein made a similar connection on his blog last November. While slightly disappointed that the old adage “there is nothing new under the sun” was ringing true once more, I did learn something new from Klein’s musings. If you use Chrome and Evernote, as I already do, you can activate simultaneous searching within Google. Now, whenever I search for something in my web browser, it also searches my Commonplace book, presenting the results at the top of the listings. If I have mused on this topic before, I will be reminded of it instantly; I can then either add new web-based information to my existing notes, or remind myself that I had already retrieved this information previously.

Thus, with Evernote securely integrated into my PC and Smartphone, I add yet another external hard drive to my brain.

Reading the Scottish Enlightenment (Library of the Written Word)

*Towsey, M. R. M, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (Leiden, 2010), pp. 184.

2 thoughts on “Digitising Locke’s Commonplace Book: A Reflection

  1. perkinsy

    So many of us face the same problem. This year I am not studying so I decided that this would be the year I read properly, ie I would read entire books slowly and reflectively. It is sad that this is a luxury for so many of us – particularly academics.

    I totally agree about Evernote – what a boon!

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