Briefly: Commonplace books, notes, and memory

I found myself intrigued a while ago by the idea of a “commonplace book”: a book where, in earlier days, one would copy memorable quotes, excerpts from books, or other wisdom. The idea integrates with several others:

  • Handwriting takes work. And the time and effort involved in putting text on a page, using the ancient technology of pen and dead trees, engage the mind in a way that strengthens memory.
  • Summarizing is learning. When you put forth the effort to select something worth noting, perhaps to connect it to other concepts, and to briefly write down something about it, the incoming information has changed. It’s no longer data flowing through your thoughts; it’s a richly encoded, richly networked piece of knowledge or wisdom with known relations to other thoughts.
  • It’s helpful to have an index, and a history, of thoughts you’ve found especially powerful.
  • And the ultimate point of input (reading, listening, etc.) is to increase the wisdom and knowledge to which you have immediate, personal access–mostly, inside your head.

I’ve occasionally tried to create my own “commonplace book”–through Google Docs, through this blog, through pen, paper and a leatherbound journal, even through Todoist tasks. I’m still trying to figure out an approach that “really works” with the rest of my life, though at this point I’m leaning toward the tactile, material richness of physical artifacts, perhaps combined with digital backups (and, ideally, some combination of digital shuffling/looping to remind me of these thoughts–something I still haven’t figured out how to do well).

For more on what actually helps you learn well, see a great and short-ish read, Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.

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