Commonplace Book

Some thoughts on the fun and practice of keeping a Commonplace Book

Many of us have made our world so familiar that we do not see it anymore. An interesting question to ask yourself at night is, What did I really see this day?
― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Wait, a What?

A commonplace book is a physical collection of stuff that captures your attention that you gather in order to gain wisdom and notice the world.

They’re different from a journal, a bullet journal, a sketchbook, a diary, a travel journal, morning pages, scrapbook, … but may contain elements of all of these.

Read How and Why to Keep a Commonplace Book, Keeping a Commonplace Book and Project: Start a Commonplace Book.

What goes in it?

Quotes, reminders, doodles, movie tickets, song lyrics, newspaper clippings, poems that make you want to dance, book summaries, overheard snippets of conversation, deep questions, passages from sacred texts, mindmaps, sketchnotes, pressed leaves, names of people on your mind, prayers, airplane tickets. Whatever catches your attention, jot it down and capture it. Reference anything that you want.  Pay attention to what you pay attention to; notice what you notice.

It is a place to collect things that interest you, that intrigue you, and that you are learning from. Most specifically, it is a tool to help you practice presence and reflection.


A good Commonplace Book practice begins by being a collection of the things that you want to return to.  It continues by allowing us to reflect upon why those things caught our attention.

More importantly, our time and our culture devalues boredom and reflection.  We devalue long, slow processes. We devalue noticing and awareness.

But there’s a better way.

Does it have to be physical?

I suppose not, BUT… as a child of the Digital World, I find it crucial to keep my Commonplace book in a physical form.  Yes, I have Evernote and Pinterest and Tumblr and OneNote and various other things that other people may find useful, but the act of curating a physical book, and writing by hand, helps me to reflect, engage and respond in ways that merely clicking a Share button doesn’t allow me to do.

We learn better when we take note by hand than by keyboard or dictation. This is partly due to the fact that in order to handwrite, we have to synthesize and reflect upon the stuff coming into our senses, and to consider how we want to note those things.

In Pat’s Classes

Here is some of what I say in the classes I teach:

Choose and use a physical book for your Commonplace Book for this course. I recommend something in the A5 size (approximately 8.5” x 5.5”) or larger. Some suggestions:

  • Decomposition Book
  • Moleskine (Large) journal, any paper type or format
  • Pentalic A5 watercolor journal
  • Leuchtturm1917 Notebook
  • Hobonichi Techo Cousin
  • Rhodia Webnotebook
  • Baron Fig Confidant
  • Strathmore journals and sketchbooks
  • Hand-bound sketchbook
  • My current favorites are Stillman and Birn Alphas.  In the Seattle area,

Note that a Commonplace Book is NOT a journal, notebook, diary or art journal. It is a place to collect things that interest you, that intrigue you, and that you are learning from.  Most specifically for this class, it is a tool to help you practice presence and reflection.

You will NOT be graded for the quality of artistic skill expressed in this work, but upon your engagement with presence and reflection.

In your Commonplace Book, you might include quotes, book summaries, movie tickets, Scripture, song lyrics, prayers, peoples’ names or anything you wish to reflect upon and remember. For this class in particular, please ALSO reflect upon class content: Classroom conversations, your interactions with the books, articles and other resources that we use, your experiences and explorations of the contemplative and activist practices that we are sampling. Whenever something captures your attention, jot it down. Interact with it.

Students should bring their Commonplace Book to class times, and to discuss their discoveries with small groups around tables.

Here are some resources that may be helpful as you begin the practice of keeping your own Commonplace Book:

Use your Commonplace Book however you’d like, but use it as a way to learn to practice attentiveness, presence, listening and reflection.


More Resources to Check Out

I keep a digital collection about commonplace books in my Evernote system (which is itself something of a filing cabinet or commonplace).  You can see the things I’ve saved about Commonplace Books here.