How to Remember What You Read…a case for the commonplace

What is a commonplace book. By definition a commonplace book is, a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use. I love how Austin Kleon refers to it as a “swipe file” in his writing.

A commonplace book is a depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations, and information that you come across during your life in the course of reading, observing, or other didactic pursuits. The purpose is to record and organize information that strikes you, quotes that motivate you, stories that inspire you for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, in your speaking, or whatever it is that you do.

I have Ryan Holiday (like many things in my life) to thank for learning about this process.

Often times when you read a lot, there’s an assumption that you don’t retain a lot of what you read, and since learning about the commonplace book, it’s been incredibly helpful in regards to retaining and connecting what I read.

But aside from helping me retain what I read, the commonplace has held an important place in the world of “learned people” (please read that in the voice of John C. Reilly in Stepbrothers).

Courtesy of Ryan Holiday in the Read to Lead Challenge:

“From his days as spokesperson for General Electric in the 1950s, through his presidency in the 1980s, and until his death in 2004, Ronald Reagan, dubbed ‘The Great Communicator,’ delivered thousands of speeches and some of history’s greatest public addresses. How did he do it? He had a secret weapon that would only be discovered after his death.

In 2010, when the Reagan Presidential Library was undergoing renovation, a box labeled ‘RR’s desk’ was discovered. Inside the box were the personal belongings Reagan kept in his office desk, including a number of black boxes containing 4×6 note cards filled with handwritten quotes, thoughts, stories, political aphorisms, and one-liners. Distinguished by themes like ‘On the Nation,’ ‘On Liberty.’ ‘On War,’ ‘On the People,’ ‘The World,’ ‘Humor,’ and ‘On Character’—this was Reagan’s version of a commonplace book.”

My commonplace has taken many different manifestations, all for the sake of trying to find what works.

I’ve tried notecards.

Note pages.

Rocket notebook write up on Sula, by Toni Morrison

And “capture and create” method.

Recently, and what’s proven to be super effective, using Notion. The fact that I’m even using Notion feels like a cliche of all the productivity folks on YouTube, but I swear they aren’t full of it. As you can tell from the examples above, I’m often feast or famine. I tend to write everything down to a point that I’m writing a mini version of the book, or it’s a notecard without the context.

My current Notion system often looks like the below…

I cannot speak highly enough about this book – thanks Ali Abdaal on recommending it on your YouTube!

My challenge to you is to start keeping a commonplace book.

Commit to drawing from multiple sources: fiction and nonfiction, magazine articles, poems, even pertinent quotes from TV shows or movies. If you don’t find anything in your current content multiple days in a row, consider discarding it and picking something new. Think of specific topics you want to cover, example, devote the next ten pages of your book to leadership (something I’m working on in the new year, dedicated pages toward a single topic, rather than book by book).

I’m always reading with a pen, or highlighter, and some page flags in hand. I’m also not opposed to folding pages. Books are meant to be read, interacted with, so don’t be afraid to have a dialogue with the author, and look for bits to transfer to your commonplace book.

The first time I read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, I was blown away when I learned that we were basically getting a peak into his commonplace book. So if it helps, think of a commonplace book that you’d want to leave for your kids and grandkids…they’ll know where you drew inspiration.

The Roman author and philosopher Seneca said it brilliantly:

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application—not far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech—and learn them so well that words become works.”

Since you’re still here, enjoy these two videos on the topic…

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