Enquire Within Upon Everything

Darwin’s notebooks lie at the tail end of a long and fruitful tradition that peaked in Enlightenment-era Europe, particularly in England: the practice of maintaining a “commonplace” book. Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters – just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing”, as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the pursuits of life.”

Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

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  • Jeff Rosenbaugh February 22, 2012 at 9:43 am

    I started doing this (I admittedly have been bad at it since the Christmas break), and it is astounding to see the thoughts I end up putting on paper and the connections I am able to make throughout the day. Innovation flows much more easily (from someone who has never considered himself highly innovative), and the motivation to continue exploring is enhanced. I highly recommend giving it a try and seeing what comes from it. Johnson’s theory of recording things to create a personal network of ideas really has merit.