An Academic’s Commonplace Log Procedure(s)

November 2015

Procedures of Encounter, or, My Commonplace Log Practice

Several years ago I was in a small specialty bookstore and came upon a book with mostly blank pages simply called A Little Commonplace Book, published in 2010 by Cabinet Books & Proteotypes. It is a facsimile of a 1796 commonplace book method published by Hamilton and Co. for sale in the Shakespeare Library in London. The facsimile provided detailed instructions for how to write in the rest of the book’s pages, “formed generally upon the procedures recommended and practiced by John Locke, Esquire, Author of an Essay on the Human Understanding, &c” (3). Such books are, conventionally, a genre of reading log. Locke’s system for recording passages began with the design of an appropriate heading, which he would then record in an index according to the first letter and first vowel of the topical heading (in Latin). Then he would record the passage with the bibliographical information of the source with that heading in the margin of the next page in the log with room (Locke 446). If one’s headings were consistent, the index, as it accrued logged encounters, would take the writer/user/reader to multiple passages, thereby building relationships between texts across common themes as topoi.

The facsimile edition urges the writer to think of the commonplace book as an aid to memory with regard to rhetorical acts in the present, as “there is indeed no man, whatever may be his station in life, who has not often lamented that he has allowed ideas to pass away, which he could have wished to have retained, and in vain solicited his memory for passages, which he might easily have treasured up in such a repository” (3). The repository, to be dipped into in any social occasion for public utterance, is the material memory palace, with corridors of unlocked doors in rooms themed by the reader’s own scheme.

D. Graham Burnett—editor of Cabinet magazine and Professor of History at Princeton—offers in his introductory remarks to the commonplace book reprint that we must reclaim the term “commonplace” from its pejorative senses and remember that the practice of keeping track of commonplaces is a productive procedure:

This body of practices—techniques for indexing, strategies for note taking, mechanisms for the maintenance of prosthetic memories, all the stuff laid out in the pages that follow—amounted to an elaborate tactical convergence between the art of reading and the art of writing. The commonplace book, where one gathered and sorted one’s textual gleanings, was nothing if not a model of the well-organized mind (1).

Although Burnett’s urging is to recover a hand-made analog method of recording one’s reading, it’s impossible not to notice the machinic language in his prose. The strategies are “mechanisms” and the relationship between reading and writing is a “tactical convergence.” Not only is the production of such a work machinic, the very circulation of this commonplacing procedure has been dependent on machines. What I write here is at least four times removed from Locke’s method as documented in his letter to Mr. Toignard in “A New Common Place Book Method,” which released his approach, refined by twenty-five years’ experience, to the public  (Locke 444). The original letter was typeset and run through the press, the adapted version was also produced in this way. Then someone made a facsimile, and then a digital version of that facsimile. Then Burnett combined the two in the 1999 reprint-with-new-intro edition. Now I compose this text on a self-assembled desktop computer, and circulate it through social media platforms.


A page from the facsimile commonplace log from Cabinet, offering the index (based on the Locke method), where the first letter and first vowel and pages with relevant passages would be found.

I say this all of this in part because there seems to me to be multiple machines– those material gizmos that determine type and font and spacing and reproducibility—and then there are procedures for the writing down of passages itself, born from the author or borrowed from a persuasive source like Locke, technologies of memory retention and, as I’m beginning to articulate through my doctoral research, rhetorical training in anticipation of meeting the kairotic moment. In Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory for Practice, he writes that “the right way and the right moment – kairos – to apply the rules, or as the phrase so aptly goes, to put into practice a repertoire of devices or techniques,” (20), or as Debra Hawhee summarizes the Democritus fragment “We are all students of the animals in the most important things” (DK 68 B154): “In other words, mimetic learning happens through a relation with someone or something else, an observation and repetition of another’s actions and practices” (148). I read the commonplace book as one of the technologies of such work, as not only procedures through which readers (of texts, of the world) record and index encounters, but as the rehearsal of others’ actions and practices materially, physically, and mentally. While plenty of logs, diaries, journals, etc. can be claimed under the genre of the commonplace book, I’m especially interested in the highly constrained and procedural approaches to the practice, as those constraints strike me as at once the mechanics of highly-organized minds (or the desire to train oneself to be so organized), and as the social and cultural means by which we absorb others’ works, which we might knowingly attribute our knowledge to, but might also appropriate without conscious effort. Either way the work becomes a part of our being.

Scholars invested in procedurality since Ian Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric have largely stayed within the realm of computer code, software, and computer games as examples of procedural expression and argument, as evidenced by Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s notion of “expressive processing,” Stephen Ramsay’s “algorithmic criticism” as a critical reading practice, and Annette Vee’s materially-conscious call for coding literacy (to name only a few). Importantly, these works emphasize that procedures are not only followed, they are made and authored. My own attention to procedure draws from these works, but complicates them by offering that computer code is only one kind of procedural genre. The procedural iterations of the commonplace log thus offer fruitful case examples as the genre has active contributors in both analog and digital forms. 

DIY Craft Culture, or The Pinterest Procedure Project, or “Procedurality and Pinterest: the Commonplace Log and Crafting in Code”

CPB Pinterest Board

As a participant in the genre myself, I’ve found an active community of other contributors and interested parties (other researchers, DIY enthusiasts, and others) on the pin-board social media platform Pinterest. In order to track and study which procedures circulate and which are taken up through this community, I’m writing up this post and infographic (see below) to share my own procedures to see if they gain any traction (I suspect it won’t, because I do not circulate enough original content for it to be prioritized in search results). In the meantime, I’m also studying existing pins and repins to track how particular procedural approaches to the genre are circulating via the platform as a part of a more formal article on the commonplace log as a procedural genre. In this paper, I draw from the aforementioned computational scholarship in order to describe a procedural genre that has an analog history and contemporary digital iterations: the commonplace log. In order to acknowledge its historical relevance and its digital evolution, I’ll trace the genre’s procedures through appearances and circulation in pins on Pinterest.

While many everyday reading logs have come to be called “commonplace books,” my interest is in highly constrained and procedural approaches to the genre (as via John Locke’s method), where a reader captures passages from texts and then logs and indexes them under thematic headings. Examples of the logs circulate, but the procedures for crafting these logs are what are most often picked up by users of Pinterest and web users of the genre (as it appears via blog, Twitter, Tumblr, and other platforms). Looking at commonplacing procedures as circulated through Pinterest is thus multiply procedural: the platform’s mechanics are built procedurally in code, its users make use of those mechanics for commonplacing purposes (capturing and sharing passages/scraps of text), and commonplace log procedures themselves are being circulated to its willing, DIY and craft-oriented community.
I am still clarifying the methodology of this study, but I know that my analysis will have to grapple with (in and outside of the text of my paper) not having access to the Pinterest code itself. That said, a part of my purpose is to emphasize that there is a lot to learn about any program’s procedures (lived and analog programs, as well as computational ones) from the ways in which people interact with (and make from) a program’s mechanics. It’s thus important that my analysis deal with what I do have access to, namely Pinterest’s newly released API (Application Programming Interface), their analytics, search page source code, as well as any manual methods of tracing pins as they are circulated.

My Commonplace Log Procedures: An Academic’s Take

I’ve created a Pinterest-friendly infographic to share my own commonplace log procedures. While I do transfer some of my passages to digital spaces via my Twitter or via images on Instagram, I am always first writing in my commonplace book in my own handwriting with my own idiosyncratic procedure. Here’s the poster I put together to share my practice:

See this post on Pinterest, and feel free to Pin/Repin!

See this post on Pinterest, and feel free to Pin/Repin!

Some of the rules of engagement are derivative of Locke’s method, especially in terms of the ongoing index-building and key-term headings. My own constraints differ, however, when it comes to what kinds of passages I’ll capture. Ultimately I’ll capture just about anything that feels like it’s doing useful and important work, from the position of the work itself and that which I suspect will be useful in my own work. For longer books that means that I record a lot of passages in chronological order until I’m finished reading the book, so many headings are related in quick succession (in entries for Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts, there appears “kairos” and then “agency and kairos,” on the same page). What I don’t reflect here is that when I’m writing my papers I re-read the relevant source material captured in my commonplace log and go back to flesh out connections between passages while simultaneously employing them in articles/essays/whatever writing I’m working on. It means I don’t have to go back to the full book or article itself unless I need to remember the context of the passage or see if the passage continues in a way that might help my current purposes.

A new commonplace log and Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts.

My newest commonplace log (the Series E2 Engineer Research Notebook PA43-51732 from Vela Workings), morning coffee, and Debra Hawhee’s Bodily Arts.

My procedure is constrained and systematic, and I do proceed in the order represented above. I find the rehearsal of this practice particularly gratifying. The physical act of writing down the passage helps me remember that it was written. I embody the rhetorical moves of the text as I recreate them in my own handwriting. I often make mistakes, accidentally skipping lines or moving too quickly — which reminds me to slow down, to take in and read what I’m writing as I’m writing what I’m reading. It is almost a meditative practice. When I am feeling overwhelmed by the writing process I return to reading and passage capture in my commonplace log, or to read what I’ve already put down. My own thoughts are rarely represented in the log, which allows my thinking about the passages to evolve as I re-encounter them for a new rhetorical purpose, or after I’ve read other texts. This is important, and keeping to the procedure keeps me on track with this purpose.

The traces of my thinking are only seen in the gestures I make to connect moments, which are signaled both in the index with however many times a key term and its constellations appear, as well as my curved arrows marking related passages. The connections are easiest when the source references another source already captured in my commonplace log, but is perhaps most helpful when I’m building up links that are not yet built. I often build these at the moment of composition and capture, but I also return to provide more links as I keep building up the log with passages. I do think of these “links” as hyperlinks — as that which (if I could) I would devise some mechanic for pressing on that curved arrow and having the pages swoosh back to the earlier moment, and then forward to a later one, to build the narrative. But while such magic does not exist in the analog sense, it is visually captured in the index.

This procedural approach to note-taking and passage capture has not come without substantial trial-and-error and practice. I used to keep notes only in Moleskine notebooks, but found the wider white space of the engineer’s lab notebook more appropriate for seeing across passages — just by the sheer fact that multiple can be seen at once when the notebook is spread open. I used to not tag my sources with key terms (or, not always), but I would always write key terms in the margins of the books or articles themselves, so I just started re-representing those in the commonplace log. Now when I re-read a book and see a marginally noted key term I know the passage will likely have been recorded. For a while I had separate commonplace books for separate purposes — broken up by theme (computation, classical rhetoric, affect, etc.), which was practical for coursework but not helpful for building connections across these areas, which is what I’m aiming to do in my research. It seems non-sensical to have Ridolfo and Devoss’s “Composing for Recomposition,” next to Isocrates’s “Antidosis,” until–having read them in that order–the Ridolfo notion of “rhetorical velocity” strikes a chord with this Isocrates assertion:

He will select from all the actions of men which bear upon his subject those examples most edifying; and, habituating himself to contemplate and appraise such examples he will feel their influence not only in the preparation of a given discourse but in all the actions of his life (276-277).

If we compose with the sense that what we do will be recomposed, then we are anticipating what Isocrates is saying is good intellectual practice, the uptake and influence of those works we find influential, for a variety of contexts for recomposition. Such reflections might happen if a span of pages separate sources, but most happens when sources appear close by. The procedural approach is what makes such connections more visible.

{Temporary} Closing Gesture

By now I’ve gone on too long — but I hope you see my purpose. I’ll come back to update this page with my methodology for this study, and perhaps even some of its results. I might create a new website entirely to present this project — I’m not sure. We’ll see how it goes. For now, back to mining Pinterest for more procedures!

One thought on “An Academic’s Commonplace Log Procedure(s)

  1. Pingback: A Commonplace Book | Dr. Patricia M. Stohr-Hunt


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