Our Reading Lives

Commonplace Books: the Real Life Pinterest

Emma Allmann

Staff Writer

In addition to learning how to write creatively at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Emma Allmann spends her time lugging books along with her on outdoor adventures. She uses hiking, running, cross-country skiing, and climbing as time to discover new and interesting things to write about. She has had a play produced at the Marcia Légère Student Play Festival and writes about the books she reads on her blog, I'm Right Here Because I'm Not All There. When she's not reading, writing, or adventuring she can be found making a list of good names for ice-cream. Twitter: @Emryal

Emma Allmann spends most of her time writing, reading, and ice-cream eating. She talks about all the books she reads on her blog, https://emryal.wordpress.com/. Follow her on Twitter @Emryal.

A commonplace book is a real life Pinterest quote board; a place to collect and organize quotes you like from books. When I started mine, it was an assignment for a class I was taking. I’ve since filled up that original notebook and am on my third. Why? I can hear you asking all the way through space, time, and the internet, why keep a commonplace book when quote boards on Pinterest do, in fact, exist? I’ve found it’s helped me become a more critical reader. We all know the feeling of getting so swept up in a well-written, captivating story that by the time we finish we need to take a few moments to regroup and think about it. Sometimes, rushing through a story like that makes us miss some beautiful details. Keeping a commonplace book has forced me to slow down and really chew on the bits of a story that are exciting. I get to think about what, exactly, the book is saying, and how it’s saying it so well. My standards for quotes and books have risen because I’m beginning to notice and appreciate truly well done, insightful writing.

I’m a bit old fashioned, but I think there is something special about writing things down on paper. Finding the perfect notebook and writing all over it always feels good. There have also been some studies that say people remember things better when they write them down instead of type them. It always feels cool to know that you have a relevant quote for a conversation and you can actually quote the whole thing instead of ending with, “It goes something like that, I’ll send it to you later.”

I keep commonplace book in categories. When I like a quote I have to decide whether to put it in Love, Friendship, Nature, Insults, Death, Truths, Self-Talk, Knowledge, or Writing and Reading. This system of organization makes it a useful tool to go back to. When I’m feeling a little lost and need some wisdom about friendships, I flip to that category and get to hear from Toni Morrison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Shakespeare, Sarah Kay, and Henry David Thoreau, just to name a few. After a while each category starts to look like a conversation between great minds and writers throughout the years about that topic. It is so cool to see how popular views on things like love have changed and stayed the same from Shakespeare to B.J. Novak.

If you’re feeling unsure about this newfangled commonplace book idea, you may take comfort in knowing it’s not at all new. People have been keeping commonplace books, and similar such organizational notebooks, since the fifteenth century. In 1706 John Locke even wrote a book about how he thought people should keep commonplace books. Emerson, Coleridge, Twain, and Lovecraft all kept commonplace books, so when you do get started on your own, you’ll be in good company!