The Book of One’s Own.

My visit last week to the Morgan Library in mid-town Manhattan reminded me that I made one of my most meaningful connections in the old gift shop there.

To be precise, it was September 21, 1998 and I was browsing through the post cards when my fancy was caught by a fetching blank book. It was a paperback, 8-inch square, and the size just  delighted me.

I bought the one that was for sale, and then tracked down the manufacturer in Connecticut and persuaded them to sell me a dozen more.

It’s been my Commonplace Book of Choice ever since.

A “Commonplace” is a translation of the Latin term locus communis which means “a theme or argument of general application”, such as a statement of proverbial wisdom. Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas.

Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator’s particular interests.

I’ve been keeping Commonplace Books since I was 19 years old.

And, ever since 1998, these 8″ x 8″ notebooks have been my dear Commonplace books.

This is from my collection of Thrift Shop Book Dust Covers With Fabulous Author Photos!

Another great Author Photo from the past — Mary Stewart, above, pictured in Edinburgh with her cat. On the facing page are my notes from Stephen King’s great book about writing, On Writing: Write what you love to read. Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationship, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.

Looking good, Mr. Theroux, on the back cover of World’s End. (Ah, those were the days, when an Author Photo took up the whole back cover.)

In 2003 I saw this ad for shirts, and I kept it thinking that I’d be able to use it some day, for something or other. I haven’t yet, but it still inspires me.

A lot of my Commonplace books are filled with notes from great books I’ve read.

I love these notebooks so much that I designed my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam, in their exact size — 8 inches by 8 inches. But because I didn’t leave enough room on the margins for the printing process the book had to be done in a 9-inch by 8-inch format.

I have two brand new notebooks to give away today, because I love these books and I’m pretty fond of the readers of this blog, too.

All you have to do is leave a Comment and be either the 1,545th Commentor orthe 1,560th Commentor (East Coast! West Coast! Overseas! This is your chance!), and I’ll send you your new Commonplace Book with my fondest wishes for many happy hours of readin’ and writin’.


28 Comments, RSS

  1. Jen

    Morning Vivian,

    Yes, I have also been feeling self conscious about my daily interests and activities in light of Japan’s trauma. And yet, what else can we do from half a world away but go on as normal?

    Also, every time I look out my window and see the large snowbanks that still exist I think of you! I hope you’ve adjusted to your no-snow situation by now. I’d be happy to send you some of ours from VT.

    And finally, buying multiple copies of the same perfect commonplace book???? Brilliant! Finding a good, spiral bound, properly-sized blank book requires luck or tenacity. Good work on scooping up a bunch.

    I have so many favorite passages written down in so many different places.

    Here’s one from Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy: “Who knows how these cherished beliefs became certainties with us, and whether some secret wish did not furtively beget them, clothing desire in the dress of thought.”

    And from Siren’s of Titan by Vonnegut:
    “Earth was green and watery. The air of Earth was good to breathe, as fattening as cream. The purity of the rains that fell on Earth could be tasted. The taste of purity was daintily tart. Earth was warm. The surface of Earth heaved and seethed in fecund restlessness. Earth was most fertile where the most death was.”

    Jen Audette

  2. Janet

    Vivian, this is impressive. I say this as I sit at the desk in my home office, my computer balanced on catalogs, newspaper clippings, bills, receipts and all manner of paper that I think I want to hold on to, but which is in piles, stacks and generally is a complete mess. That you would be so organized since you were 19 — I wouldn’t have thought to do such a thing as a teenager, and while I do think of it now — daily it seems — I seldom get around to it. You’ve inspired me: I actually bought a little notebook about a month ago to do just what you do, but here’s a perfect example of how I have already shot myself in the foot — I can’t find it in this rumble of an office. While I’d love to be one of the magic number of blog commenters, it’s enough that you’ve reminded me there is a simple way of making order from chaos. Thanks for that.

    As for a favorite passage, here is something I found interesting in a recent interview with Marjorie Kaplan, the president of cable’s Animal Planet and Science networks. She sent a note to some of her staff to motivate them to bring their best selves to work. She said, “We need to be as fresh as when we were new, and as brave as we were when we had nothing to lose.”

    Seems to me that applies to more more than what any of us does at the office.

  3. Sandy

    Fantastic – I NEED that Beautiful book to organize all the Stuff I cut out and save!! Who knew that it was possible to stockpile and idex such vital tidbits!!
    Sandy in CT
    And how mindblowing to sit (with a cup of tea) and peruse such history.

  4. I used to use plain black hardcover sketchbooks, both small and large. One of my first art teachers made our entire class keep journals, with illustrations and clippings pasted in. He said all the artists he knew kept journals of some kind, and he wanted us to get into the habit of it. I used those sketchbooks for over ten years, then about eight years ago I switched to moleskine notebooks. I no longer cut and paste, just write and sketch in them instead. and I too copy quotations from what I’m reading. Here’s a recent one, from the memoir “Four Seasons in Rome” by Anthony Doerr (p.54):

    “A good journal entry ought to be a love letter to the world.”

  5. Susie

    Ooooooh, how I envy regular journal keeping people! I’ve started so many, I haven’t found the right format (hint hint).

    This isn’t from literature and I don’t know if it was even in the book, but from the movie, Jurassic Park, the character, Jeff Goldblum plays, Ian Malcolm, says “Life finds a way.” This has stuck with me for years…..

    I do have longer, important quotes I like, written on scraps of paper, stuffed in odd books and journals. But with that kind of filing system, I can’t find them, they fall out now and then and surprise me.
    How crazy is that?

    Did Bibs stay around or move on? Always love to see your cat pics…..

  6. Shelley

    I used to copy quotes and favorite passages from books when I was in high school, and it’s great to be able to look back at what inspired me then, and remember what I was thinking, and how I viewed the world.

    I wish I had carried on with it as you did Vivian. Instead I clipped articles, and scribbled things on bits of paper, and ended up with piles of unorganized stuff that was thrown out in various fits of de-cluttering.

    Now, I save things on the computer, but scrolling through files and word documents does not convey the heart and soul that a book in the hand does.

    Thanks for a wonderful post Vivian. You’ve reminded me and inspired me to pick up a pen, and carry a notebook, and record those thoughts and observations and quotes and doodles and clippings. I’d love to win one of your beautiful empty notebooks just waiting to be filled…but even if I don’t, I will get one of my own.

    Will you give us the brand name, and where the books can be bought?

    I’ll add a favorite quote later, as I’m at work now, and don’t have anything handy to share.

  7. Linda Jacks

    Notebook junkie that I am, of course I have to comment. And wish I had kept track of ephemera and book interests as you have.

  8. Maryann

    love it! was delighted to discover that the connection was with a BOOK!! 🙂
    >reminded me that I made one of my most meaningful >connections in the old gift shop there.

  9. Hi Vivian,

    I love your notebook keeping and wish I was better at it.

    I have several notebooks with favorite quotes in them, and I have a full year journal to track migraines (not my favorite, but it did help with the diagnosis and treatment).

    I think the 8 x 8 is a nice size.


  10. JOAN

    I would be delighted to win one of your special journals. I have never been able to keep up with journaling. I start off inspired and eager to collect tidbits of life, sketches, clippings, ephemera, such good intentions that always fizzle out after a few weeks. I do have one book/journal that I write write poetry that moves me. Pablo Neruda has become a favorite. One of his: ” Bird by bird I have come to know the earth.” I love that. From the movie, A River Runs Through It… Tom Skerrit is eulogizing his self destructive son> “Sometimes love just isn’t enough.” I was dealing with my own self destructive child at the time…that line changed the way I related to her.

    I wish that I had been as disciplined in keeping my journals, but I’ve always been one to arrive late at the party…oh well, you will continue to touch and inspire us.

    This morning on the ABC morning news they had a segment of Three Words for Japan. The Three Words that touched me: Tsunami of Prayers.
    Simply said, deeply felt.


  11. Nadine

    My favorite piece of writing came from Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent from a 6-2 case on Feb 2011. He’s so arrogant I don’t know how the others stand him. Oddly, Justice Ginsburg was the other dissenting vote.

    From the New York Times:

    “He called the majority’s account of the facts of the case ‘so transparently false that professing to believe it demeans this institution.'”

    I used a paraphrase in a recent objection I wrote, (with attribution of course) because I could never get away with that kind of snotty attitude.

  12. Paul Theroux still looks pretty good for his age, but now he’s relegated to a small photo on the inside back flap. His latest(?) book “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” is so full of quotable quotes that it’s almost unreadable.
    I feel bad going about my daily life, too, while Japan lies in ruins. I’ve checked on the few people I know there and in tsunami areas and everyone is alright but so many are suffering.
    I want some of those books. Where can we buy them? I’m not sure they will help. I have about a million journals started. Some with about 4 pages full and then nothing. I’m like several of your commenters with scraps of paper and articles spilling out of every nook and cranny. (what’s a cranny?)

  13. Rachel

    I think you will be delighted to hear that I am polishing up my fancy hat and going to tea this Saturday with my friend Zoe to celebrate her birthday.
    Quoting a lenten blessing,
    May our fasting be hunger for justice,
    Our alms a making of peace,
    Our prayer the chant of humble and grateful hearts.

  14. mo

    wow, what a great journal! i stumbled across an 8×8 blank sketchbook a couple of years ago, by Canson, i think. i liked the size so well for the project i was thinking of (a recipe memory book) that i bought several. i’d love to find something that size with nice paper to journal on, instead of the standard 6×8 or 7×9. there’s something about a square book that is SO appealing. plus yours has a sun face on it, which delights this celestial fan no end. and i second the request by a previous commenter or two, yes, please provide the name of the maker of that journal, assuming they’re still in business and assuming they still make that particular style, of course 😉

    thanks for yet another charming blog entry. as for the Japanese tragedy, i’ve watched so many videos and read so many stories, i just feel desolate and burdened with sadness for the people impacted. horrible and beyond comprehension.

  15. Carol Danforth

    Vivian, I thoroughly enjoyed today’s blog. I had never heard of a Common Place book. And I would dearly love to have one of the two you are offering. (By the way, you really need to keep those “fierce felines” on a leash! They could attack those poor mats.) I love the words of Anne Lamott. Here are some lines from
    “Grace Eventually”: “Reading and books are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people, who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us.” Pleasant dreams to you and Top Cat and Penelope and the Gang!

  16. Sally

    Dear Vivian,

    A friend just wrote about “overlapping circles,” which in her case meant having a party at which several pairs of guests knew each other from other venues, other than their connection with the hostess.

    Your blog lately has been giving me a nice case of overlapping circles. I read only a couple of blogs or blog-like-objects, and it’s been delight to see that you and Kristin Espinasse, of French Word-a-Day, have found each other! It was fun to see “…Wanderers…” advertised on her site! (and what a swell place to advertise your next book).

    This overlap induces me to be sure you and your readers are acquainted with the Canadian artist, Robert Genn,, whose “Painter’s Key” letter (=blog) can be delivered into your inbox as a free e-subscription twice a week. Robert is a professional (and successful!) acrylic painter, but his letters address artists of every stripe, ranging from art philosophy to practical matters, and the community that comments on line does so with often inspiring illustrations of their own work.

    Yesterday I enjoyed another overlap–I led a session at a senior center, “creative drawing exercises,” for lack of a better name, and I ended with having the class make small accordion-folded books, and introduced them to the concept of art journaling. THAT term covers a lot of territory, I know, but I just had an “ah ha” moment of my own when I realized that the artist’s journal I have started is, in fact, the commonplace book of which you speak. Having started it in a carefully handmade book, it has become too precious to add to casually, and I’m too busy to work on it much. So, ah ha, again, I need to keep such a book that I can add to in a much more cavalier way, starting with a book that it is itself less precious.

    Thank you for the perpetual inspiration your writing inspires.

  17. Thank you Vivian. It’s obvious you make a difference and you remain true to yourself.

    One favorite quote is in the beginning of the book Without Reservations ~ The Travels of an Independent Woman by Alice Steinbach…It’s by
    Zora Neale Hurston: “There are years that ask questions
    and years that answer.”

    The Common Place book is a great size. I like the idea of a square book. You are so wise to pick up a supply of them. How many times we find that later we can’t find another. I use a composition book (speckled cover) and wove a slip cover for the one I currently use. It’s more of a journal but in the back I copy quotes and poems so eventually the writing meets. My daughter collages the covers. They are not intimidating to scribble/sketch in. Some books make you afraid to make your mark.

    An idea for sharing concern over the miles (learned from a friend):
    Cross your arms in front of your chest and place hands on opposite shoulders. Give a squeeze/hug along with caring thoughts or silent prayers for others.

  18. Deborah

    Love the cats-on-a-mat photo. Makes me remember when my husband & I were first dating, and I baked him a cake for his birthday (not a blue one) — covered it with a dishtowel to cool, and came back to find my roommate’s two cats sitting on top of the cake! They seemed quite happy: I was not.

    I like the sun face on the front of the notebook — and the BIG spiral spine.

  19. Deborah

    Love the cats-on-a-mat photo. Makes me remember when my husband & I were first dating, and I baked him a cake for his birthday (not a blue one) — covered it with a dishtowel to cool, and came back to find my roommate’s two cats sitting on top of the cake! They seemed quite happy: I was not.

    I like the sun face on the front of the notebook — and the BIG spiral spine.

    OINGA BOINGA! I think I discovered the secret to editing comments here — highlight the published entry, then press Enter.

    I failed to enter the quote (because I had to track it down) & didn’t want to do a second entry because of the numbers thing…

    “We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that Grace is infinite. . .” Isak Dinesen “Babette’s Feast”

    also (because it’s so relevant to this blog)

    “A diary is verification, proof that a person has lived and has cared enough about life to describe it. Many have spent time on this planet, but few have made the effort to record their stay.” James Cummings preface to American Diaries.

  20. Jeannie

    Your commonplace books are so inspiring. I keep notes, quotes, great passages on 3×5 cards, but your books are so much more exciting. I love the wild, untamed beasts helping with the spring cleaning.:) The tragedy in Japan is too hard to comprehend. I just cannot wrap my brain around the devistation Mother Nature has laid at their feet. Wishing you a peaceful week.

  21. Jen

    @Deborah, if you happen to read these comments again, just wanted you to know that I *really* like the quote you shared about diaries. I think anyone who has made efforts to record her brief stay on this mortal coil can relate those words.


  22. These are great little books! I am going to have to do some research on Common Place books- I’d never heard of them until now, but I’ve been keeping them forever. None of mine are the same, though. I haven’t fallen in love with a particular type of book yet. Currently, I’m using a thin moleskin sketchbook which seems to be working pretty well.

  23. Sallyann

    When I was young, my mother made many of these sorts of books. She called them scrap books because she put bits and scraps of this and that in them. They were large books though. When she passed away I found some of them and was amazed at what she saved. I was not able to bring all of them home with me but I did bring several.
    She often filled them with clippings, post cards and photos taken over a summer, or another of a visit from a distant friend, etc.

    I started one too but only work on it in “fits and starts” It seems I always have things that are higher on my priority list but after reading other’s posts I realize I need to bring this to the front burner of my life.

    Quote for you: “To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly. Henri Bergson


  24. patty

    I am very all or nothing with journals – sometimes days, weeks, will go by with nothing and then a rush of day after day of blabbing in writing. I do keep binders full of magazine photos I love, perhaps about 20 of them full now.
    I just read your book for the second time and it makes me want to do some new watercolors and find some neighborhood cats to pet.

  25. Thank you for that Cummings quote Deborah – how true. I’ve been keeping these Common Place books (though never knew they had a name – thanks Viv!) for years. I could never keep a traditional written journal – these catch-all journals are more my style. My favorite journal so far has been the Exacompta Forum Journal Refill (the “refill” is important – it’s a plain tan covered journal with the most delicious paper for writing). It isn’t spiral bound but the cover stretches to accommodate all the things I paste inside.

    This poem helped me after the loss of my sister-in-law and I offer it here for the loss of those in Japan and all others – known and unknown – whom we hold dear.

    Miserere: That We Might Keep Her Present Among Us

    Now, when the apples she might have picked against winter
    are falling, let us recall her, let us pick them & eat.

    Let us recall her as the leaves start their turning,
    as seed pods of maples spin & drift in the fickle wind.

    As the long vowels of rain spill from the sky’s dark sack,
    let us bring her back–not as a burden,

    no knapsack of grief that will bend us–
    but a velvet presence come from the spun cocoon of pain.

    Let us recall her because we can, it is easy, the memory
    collective, each story shared like bread, elemental as salt.

    Let the stories gather as tiny birds
    add themselves one & one to the flock,

    their small throats gathering the One
    Great Song that is more than themselves alone.

    Now, in the shortening days when light unbraids
    too early, let us astonish each other

    with love, as though, through us, we channel her desire.
    Let us summon her here that she be present

    among us, because the true burden is absence,
    because joy, O my neighbors,

    can be grafted to loss & bring fruit everbearing,
    so that

    though there is grieving,
    there is never true separation, never a leaving.

    – Sam Green (a poem written on the death of his neighbor)

  26. Susann

    These look like just wonderful little books. I also love their size and believe they would be used lots recording all sorts of important things.

  27. emily m

    Love your notebooks and would love to read every one some day.

    Very amused too to learn of your favoritism of the 8 x8 since last year I found a wonderful spiral 8 x 8.5 lined notebook on sale at Office Max and promptly bought two. I love the size and was able to transpose my very worn l993 to present Books Read notebook to this new one. I did make columns so I have author, book title, date, category and rating all on one line. To top it off I bought those cute and colorful alphabet index tabs so it is extraordinarily useful to me. Just last week I noted I’d read 22 of Donna Leon’s books and promptly reserved her latest on order at my local library. So, all this as a way of saying I love that size and wonder why it is not easily found. (Mine is , of course, made in China under DiVoga label and distributed by Office Max)

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