This Belongs on Your Bookshelf: A Blank Journal

Here’s a question: how do you read? I remember a professor in college once remarking, off the cuff, that if we weren’t reading with pencils in hand, we weren’t properly reading at all.

Enter the wonderful tradition of the commonplace book!  Like my pre-digital forbearers, I keep a dedicated book in which I (mostly) record passages that strike me and (occasionally) reflect on them in writing. Originally a sort of textual scrapbook, the commonplace book is a compilation of information, quotations, sketches, and whatever else strikes the reader’s fancy. Children used to learn handwriting (and still do, if they are educated in the Charlotte Mason tradition) by doing copywork into them.

Personally, it’s my way of keeping up a conversation with authors, and with myself, over my reading life. Scanning over past books, I see the themes that appear over and over again in my own life. I can track the evolution of my curiosity, with all its forkings and twistings. And most importantly, I get to re-experience the pleasures of books I’ve loved. Keeping a commonplace book helps me keep a sense of continuity across my rather scattered (and sometimes – thanks kids! – distracted) reading life.

So this week, instead of reviewing a particular book, we thought we’d recommend helping your kids start their own commonplace book.  It’s is a great time of year to add a blank journal to your children’s library because you can invite them to fill it as they partake of the deliciousness of summertime pleasure reading.

Encourage them to keep it nearby as they read. They can can copy out passages that move them, or that they find interesting; attempt to copy the illustrations or make up their own; write their own additions or chapters; argue with, critique, or question what they’re reading.

Smaller children who haven’t mastered writing can still journal; my daughter loves to illustrate her ideas about stories, which usually involve placing her whole family (and maybe a monster or two) in them. If she wants to narrate anything, I write it for her – although she also enjoys copying the words she sees in very simple books as a way of practicing her writing.

A few suggestions to help you get started:

  • Choose a high-quality sketchbook or unlined journal that is attractive and will last. They’ll be more likely to treat it well, and want to write in it, if it’s a book that is special and lovely.  No cheap spiral-bound notebooks! A few of my favorites are the Moleskine large sketchbook and the Paperthinks Recycled Leather journal sold at Kate’s Paperie.  Haley tells me that she likes PaperBlanks, which can be found online or at Barnes & Noble.  Of course, any well-made sketchbook (like this one, or this) from an art supply store will serve nicely if you don’t want or need lined pages.
  • Likewise, provide your child with good writing and sketching implements: a Micron pen and artist-caliber colored pencils, perhaps. (For smaller ones, start with just the pencils.) Again, if they have the opportunity to use special materials, they will likely take more care.
  • Try it yourself! Our kids model what we do, and if it’s normal to see a blank book sitting alongside Mom or Dad’s novel… well, it’ll feel more commonplace (do forgive the pun). Read passages you’ve savored over the dinner table, or use something you’ve jotted down to start a family discussion. Kids too small to take part? Even 3 or 4 year olds can sit and listen to conversations about books for short periods during dinner. Our dear daughter very graciously sat through a discussion of Hell, universalism, and Dante last weekend. (Dessert was promised when Mommy and Daddy were done talking…)
  • If you’re reading books with younger children, work on the journal together. Offer to write down their narration. Look together for maps or images they can paste into the book. Keep each child’s journal easy to find and close at hand – and take them along on vacations and picnics.
  • With older kids, be interested! Share your own journaling from a book you’re both reading, or ask them their thoughts about something you’ve read. Be genuinely curious, but don’t pry. Let teenagers, especially, explore and copy and think with freedom – and with the full assurance of your interest and availability.

Granted, keeping a physical commonplace book in today’s increasingly digital world is something of a throwback. Why not just cut and paste passages from my Kindle or iPad? Toss it up on Tumblr or Pinterest (which I do, occasionally)? Because I savor having a physical artifact of my thoughts and interests, a solid memorial of my reading life. And I think it’s good for my kids – as readers, thinkers, and human beings – to learn the same. So go buy a blank journal – and here’s hoping it won’t stay blank for long!

9 thoughts on “This Belongs on Your Bookshelf: A Blank Journal

  1. I’m glad you recommend a paper journal for this. I’ve done this for decades now, and I just can’t bring myself to do it on the computer like so many do. I guess I just need it handy, portable, and to be able to sketch if I like. I’m amazed at how often it’s helped me return to an idea or a quote that is deep in my mind but I can’t quite recall–“Oh yeah, I jotted that down in my reading journal” and there it is. I can’t wait until my girls are old enough to do this. :) Thanks.

    • Another fun thing about paper (vs. digital): the fun of paging through a journal when I’m looking for that idea or quote I know I jotted down. Instead of a search that brings up the exact result, I get the fun of hunting through the whole journal – and often seeing connections or other ideas that I would have missed in a digital, targeted search!

  2. I have done this off and on throughout the past several years and this post makes me sad that it’s been neglected for months now! Time to pick it up again…

    • Okay, one other thought: How fun will it be for those children who keep reading journals to look back on them as adults?! Personally, I would pay good money to read a commonplace book that I’d kept as a child or teen. I imagine the experience as being less embarrassing than reading one of my regular journals but just as informative.

      • So true – definitely on the “less embarrassing,” and how fun would it be to see how our curiosity develops, which interests pass by and which remain…

        And it would sure help me as I try to compile my “my-children-must-read-these” booklist.

    • You got me on that one, Jen!

      Would it be totally out of order to sit, Kindle in hand, with my analog commplace book open next to me?

  3. Please forgive the lateness of my comment! I was busy bearing my son on the day of this post. :)

    In a spirit kindred to the professor Sarah remembers, a college instructor of mine claimed that he was “barely literate” without a pen in hand. And I must personally confess feelings of deep and certain pride when I flip through old texts and glance over my markings. In fact, in spite of my usual practice of throwing out anything I don’t have an immediate need for, I keep all of my notes. I have recipes, lists of names, good lakes to kayak, favorite wines, places to vacation, etc. These notebooks are the only things I unabashedly hold on to! I even have a journal of “falling in love with my husband”. It has periodic entries about special dates, milestones, my feelings, etc. The notes from my college courses are meticulously recorded on engineering graph paper with the pages numbered. The notes in my textbooks cross reference with the page numbers in my hand written notes. As part of my personal celebration after having completed a course, I would organize the notes, handouts, and assignments and then bind them. Anyway, all of this is just my testament, proof, and affirmation of commonplace books!

    What I really want to add to this conversation is a word about medieval rapiaria. Used especially by members of the Devotio Moderna (reform movement in the Netherlands), these little spiritual notebooks were very much like commonplace books. Monks who earned their wages by copying texts (think back before Gutenberg) would record for themselves, in their rapiaria, the most beautiful and moving passages they came across. If I’m not mistaken, Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ springs from his own rapiaria.

    Though I haven’t thought to do it for awhile, I used to give such notebooks as gifts. I used to have a little mini-essay that I had written to explain the history of the rapiaria. This, paired with a very nice notebook made for a beautiful gift.

    Thank you, Sarah, for brining this all back to mind! Like Haley, I’ve been out of practice for awhile. I took a deliberate break from reading “pen in hand” to revive myself as a personal (rather than academic) reader, but I think now I’ve matured enough that I can better manage both together. And, more importantly, I’m glad you’ve given me the idea to share this habit with my children!

  4. Pingback: The Gift of Thankfulness | Aslan's Library

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