I’ve never been a journal person, though not for lack of trying. A monogrammed duffel bag in my parents’ basement holds many old diaries — a furry leopard-print one from elementary school, Moleskines with unbroken spines from college — each with an optimistic entry or two. But the habit has never stuck. That’s partly down to a lack of discipline, but I think it’s mostly self-consciousness. I can’t help reading whatever I’m writing as some future-me would, rolling her eyes, condescending from the other side of whatever dilemma I’m going through.
But there is one notebook I’ve kept up regularly for a decade: my commonplace book. The slim red book is filled with quotes, lines from books and songs and poems and conversations that stuck with me. Nothing is my original thought, but all of it struck me as meaningful when I wrote it down.
Commonplace books are hardly new. In the Renaissance, readers started transcribing classical fragments in notebooks, bringing ancient writings into conversation with their own lives. After his wife left him in 1642, John Milton processed it in his commonplace book, chronicling a reading binge about bad marriages. Arthur Conan Doyle transcribed criminology theories in his, and then gave Sherlock Holmes his own commonplace book, filled with intel on up-and-coming forgers. But the idea of a personal intellectual database fell out of style as printed material became more accessible to a broader audience. You could just look at a copy of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.” Today you can scroll through inspirational quotes on Instagram.
I started keeping a commonplace book in college for an English assignment. Over the 10 years since, I’ve kept it up. When I lived in Austin, I updated it regularly as I read at my desk; in Brooklyn, where I had no room for a desk, I would take photos of passages in library books and transcribe them later in a coffee shop. These days I live semi-nomadically, without a fixed address, and I email myself lines. Every few months I sift through them and copy the ones that still resonate into my book.
With others’ words as intermediaries, the harsh light of hindsight softens.
From my early 20s, there are pages trying to convince myself that friendship, which I had, could be as valuable as romantic love, which I didn’t. (Andrew Sullivan: “If love is about the bliss of primal unfreedom, friendship is about the complicated enjoyment of human autonomy.”) Then there’s reference to the kind of heady, urgent closeness that I surrounded myself with instead. (Sean Wilsey: “Those three in the mornings in a booth with a bunch of people that I really liked talking about whatever and being engaged and some beautiful woman across the room that you thought you might have something with.”) There are quotes from songs and stories that crushes sent me, and finally, poems that I saw my own love story in. Ultimately, when I was no longer so preoccupied with finding romantic love, my shift toward looking more closely at my other relationships is mirrored in my transcriptions: Vivian Gornick on her relationship with her mother; Durga Chew-Bose on the rapturous, fresh intimacy that I miss now.
Not surprisingly, there’s also an evolution in how I thought about being a writer. First, the canon I studied in college: John Steinbeck’s descriptions of my beloved California coast, Roberto Bolaño’s posturing wistfulness. Then, a turning point toward making my own canon, marked by Claire Vaye Watkins’s “On Pandering”: “I read women (some, but not nearly enough) but I didn’t watch them. I didn’t give them megaphones in my mind.” As I started to think that maybe I could be a writer, my book featured more of the sorts of lines I wished I could write: Hanif Abdurraqib’s cadence, Parul Sehgal’s precision, Pamela Colloff’s evocative details (“One girl’s heart beat so furiously that her pulse was visible beneath her dress; other girls’ sashes trembled”).
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Inevitably, there are also quotes about writing down lines you love. Take Mary Karr on memorization as Eucharist: “It rewires your head and keeps you in company with gods.” Or Martha Gellhorn on writing thank-you notes to the artists who open your mind: “We say thank you without meaning it; why not say thank you when you’re really grateful.” Or Nicholson Baker on commonplace books: “My own bristling brain-urchins of worry melt in the strong solvent of other people’s grammar.”
Thrumming beneath the pages is a shifting self-image. When I read them, I recognize the past me who saw herself in these quotes, but I don’t roll my eyes at her. With others’ words as intermediaries, the harsh light of hindsight softens. If keeping a journal would be a way to look in the mirror and make an honest appraisal of myself, keeping a commonplace book is more like looking at myself out of the corner of my eye.
It’s an admittedly different approach from my generation’s inclination toward full-frontal accountability. Daily diary apps and self-improvement podcasts and confessional Instagram stories evince a belief that to grow as a person you have to be entirely, unflinchingly forthcoming. But I couldn’t catalog my flaws without flinching. And I don’t think I need to. That’s part of the point of reading, I think: When I find myself too earnest, too impatient, too much, I can be in conversation with other minds instead. Keeping a commonplace book feels like a kinder way to grow, by wrestling with the articulations of others in the open as I hopefully adjust myself within.
Charley Locke is a writer and story producer. She often covers youth for The New York Times Kids section and regularly reported for the podcast “70 Over 70.”
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