Starting a Commonplace Book Has Changed the Way I Read

A few months ago, thanks to this lovely post by Ashley Holstrom, I finally started a commonplace book. A commonplace book is simply a collection of quotes from books (or movies, TV shows, etc.). I’ve been wanting to start one for years, but for some reason it always seemed too daunting. Maybe because I’ve been keeping journal since I was 12, I always imagined my future commonplace book as handwritten. I had visions of quotes from books I love surrounded by stamps and stickers and little doodles. It turns out that vision was keeping me from a wonderful project, because the moment Ashley reminded me that digital commonplace books are just as great, I started one immediately.

I’m using Notion for my commonplace book, and it’s not only just as pretty (in a different way) as a handwritten journal, it’s also easily searchable! I can tag quotes, and then browse through the tags, so it’s easy to find all the passages I’ve collected about family, change, transformation, nature, etc. I can also choose a cover photo for each quote, and I’ve discovered that one of my favorite parts of the process is browsing through Unsplash, searching for a photo that captures the essence of the quote. The whole experience has been a delight: not just marking passages I like and transcribing them, but the whole creative process of curating a book-related journal. Maintaining my commonplace book has quickly become one of my favorite bookish rituals.

It’s not surprising to me how much I like it. I am a record keeper at heart, and I love finding new ways to document my reading life, whether it’s through a reading spreadsheet, a weekly newsletter, or, now, a commonplace book. What has surprised me, though, is how the act of keeping a commonplace book has changed the way I read, and the way I measure what a book is worth to me.

I annotated books heavily in my early 20s, but it’s been years since I’ve bothered to mark passages I love on the regular. Now, I read with my trusty pack of sticky notes by my side, and flag passages I might want to record later. Sometimes it’s because a sentence is particularly lovely. Sometimes, especially in nonfiction, it’s a passage I want to come back to, an idea I’m not done pondering. Whatever the reason, I’m always on the lookout now. I read more attentively. I’ve let myself slow down a little bit. I don’t want to miss anything.

This shift in the way I read is a gift. But I’ve also noticed that I’ve started thinking about books in a whole new way. One of my intentions for 2022 is to meet books where they are — to let a book be whatever it wants to be, rather than going into the experience with a lot of preconceived expectations. My commonplace book has helped a lot with this. I’ve come to value books not just for the experience of reading them, but for the passages I collect from them.

Earlier this year I read a book I was excited about that I ended up not loving. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t wow me. It got a bit repetitive and wander toward the end, and I found myself wanting more from it. I don’t regret reading it; I liked it enough not to DNF it. But I don’t remember much about it now. Usually a book like that fades into the background, forgotten. In this case, though, I’d marked a bunch of passages to add to my commonplace book — five or six at least, which is a lot for a 150ish page book.

As I was transcribing these quotes into my commonplace book, I realized that there was one section of this book that I absolutely loved. The book as a whole isn’t a favorite, but pieces of it still spoke to me, loudly enough that I felt compelled to record them. Without a commonplace book, those passages would have likely faded from my memory, along with the rest of the book. But because I was paying close attention, now my experience of that book is not defined by what it didn’t give me, but by the miracle of what it did.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of falling head-over-heels for a book. I used to be the kind of reader who lived a life of extremes. I valued books I loved, and everything else was just kinda meh. Now I’m the kind of reader who understands that not every book offers the same gifts. I still love that feeling of discovering a new all-time favorite, but I’m a lot more appreciative of the journey, now. The bumps along the way. The books that yield a few beautiful sentences. The books I only love in bits and pieces. The unremarkable books. Even books I DNF feel different to me now — because who’s to say I might not flag a breathtaking passage before I decide a book isn’t for me?

I’m looking forward to seeing what else my commonplace book has to teach me about reading. For now, I’m grateful to this new bookish habit for the way it has made me slow down, shift my expectations, and realize that finding even one perfect sentence in a book is actually pretty remarkable.

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