The instant Kaisa from Valkoinenponi mentioned it, I recognized the Commonplace Journal. For me, it was a book I had seen before, with the words Vade Mecum printed on the cover, that my father used. It was a small notebook, and he took notes in it. About the weather, numbers and measurements he needed to remember, quotes on prices and on wisdom. Vade Mecum means “Come with Me” in Latin, and the book went most places with my father, the original life-long learner.
In the early days of printing, Vade Mecum became a name for books that published information–general or specific–in a variety of topics. They contained medical information, wieghts and measurements, and recipes for healing, cooking, even alchemy.
Vade Mecum had another name, starting in the 15th century: Commonplace books and Zibaldone. These notebooks were a combination of a scrapbook and a note-taking device. Students who were studying by apprenticeship would sketch or write information for their professional learning into the books. As the students became masters, they would allow the next generation to learn from these books. In the 1600s, most college students learned from the professors through keeping a Commonplace Book. Oxford University and Harvard taught via Commonplace Book well into the 20th century.
When I was in college, I created a Commonplace timeline in my room. Every time I learned something in one field, I’d mark it on the timeline–when it happened, who did the work. I’d add notes from other fields. By the middle of the year, I could tell you that while Bach was studying music, Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg (later Leningrad) and that 9,000 people died in England in a huge windstorm with gusts that reached 120 mph. The timeline wrapped around the room. The arts, music, science, literature–all trailed around the room, helping me understand the relationship between politics, culture, and science.
I still keep a Commonplace Book. It holds quotes, book titles, ideas. I wish it looked more like Count Laszlo’s private diary in The English Patient (the 1996 movie made of Michael Ondaatje’s book). You can see a glimpse of it at the 4:00 mark in the trailer. But it is, well, commonplace. It is also the reason that I can’t keep an art journal without words as the origination source. I understand books without words, just colors or images when others do them, but for me, words create the book. And the image.
I love the idea of important pieces of learning and experience caught in one book. Paging through it, I can remember so much of where I was and what I was learning. You can start your own, but if you already have one, please leave a comment about what you keep in it.
–-Quinn McDonald is a romantic at heart. But don’t tell anyone; it’s hard to be a level-headed creativity coach if people think you are a wild romantic.