On Reading Deeply

The speed at which we do life (and isn’t that the strangest expression? “Doing life” in exchange for “living”) has increased so significantly and rapidly that we are only now beginning to see its effect upon the human soul. We live in a world that moves at a quick pace, that values productivity to the detriment of quality. We are a culture offended by waiting, by silence, by intimacy, and rest. The irony is that in all of that hustle, a significant amount of time is wasted; the mind is so scattered by multitasking it takes much longer to get work of value completed. I do my best to push against this in my own life, and in my home. We cut a lot of things that are fillers- by that, I mean things that tend to fill any and every empty space- such as TV or social media. Instead we read, I write, I sit and think, we play outside. But even in this, productivity as the ultimate pursuit trickled in. Rather than reading for pleasure, I came to read for information (not a bad thing) or for completion (enter the Goodreads Reading Challenge.) As soon as a book was closed, I was on to the next, like catch-and-release reading. But the absence of reflection robs the book/article/essay of having its effect upon the reader. At times, the language was so beautiful or the thought so provoking, it beckoned me to sit with it a while. But I was too hasty, and lost the full depth of the experience.

Speed of living inherently reduces quality of life, with little regard for the activity. To feel this physically, set a timer for one minute. During that minute, take rapid shallow breaths. When the minute is up, take a few slow deep breaths. The body is finally getting what it needs. In both cases you are breathing, but what a difference breathing deeply makes! Though in that minute you are working hard to bring oxygen to all the parts of your body, it does not satisfy. That frenetic feeling you get near the end of the minute is the same thing that happens under the surface of a perpetually busy life.

I knew if I wanted to read well rather than read much, I was going to have to make some major changes, and they would begin by slowing down. I came across the centuries old practice of commonplacing, or keeping a commonplace book. With the glut of information available due to the printing press, people used commonplace books as a filter for the overload, allowing the drossy information to fade away while saving the gold. Every commonplace book varied according to the life and personality of its author, but in general, it was a catch-all of information they wanted to keep: to store away for later use or to commit to memory, such as quotes, equations, speeches, recipes, poems, observations, etc. Studies show that writing things down helps to lodge information in the long-term memory, rather than the short-term. Commonplacing, then, is the practice of taking what is beautiful and worthy and letting it become a part of yourself. Then the commonplace book becomes the history of your intellectual (and even spiritual) development; an autobiography of sorts.

The most wonderful and yet difficult aspect of commonplacing is that there are no set rules. The book is whatever you make of it. And here, too, productivity can rear its ugly head and sap all the goodness from this habit. With both these things in mind, here are a few tips and examples to guide you so that joy and depth remain at the center of your activity, should you choose to begin your own commonplace book:

1. Begin with the end in mind.

Intentionality separates the commonplace book from other kinds of journaling, which are primarily reactive. A commonplace book should be thoughtfully proactive. Think of yourself as a curator. What do you want filling the walls of your mind? This not only helps you to know what to put into your commonplace book, but it works before that in guiding you in what to read. After all, your commonplace book is only as insightful as the snippets you put into it. Here’s what that looks like for me: I aim to keep my book focused on displaying the very best of what I come into contact with. I want it to be a place where I interact with what I am reading by writing responses to what I read. Finally, I intend for it to be a tool of growth, which means that while I do not love everything I read, I do not use my commonplace book as a means of criticizing works. I do, however, include passages that are thought provoking that I may disagree with. My response to them though is one of wondering out loud. In other words, my commonplace book is a place of testing; one of perpetual inquiry- and sometimes discovery- rather than final solution.

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You can see here that I don’t respond to every passage. It’s important not to set up rules for yourself that force you to do more than you need. It is fine, here, to let your interests and desire direct you. These excerpts are from Simone Weil, and they were particularly challenging because many of her ideas were strange to me, yet worthy of consideration. I do not feel the need to boundary my commonplace book with only information I whole-heartedly adhere to. This is a place to wrestle.


2. Let things sit first.

Don’t commonplace as you go. Read something in its entirety, underlining and making notes in the margins as you read. When you’re done, leave it to sit with you for at least a  week. Do not move on to reading something else during this time, though it will be tempting. Your mind will continue coming back to certain parts and you will have an idea of what had the greatest influence on you. This allows you to return to it with a holistic perspective and you’ll be able to filter through what to keep more easily.

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With this book (Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions) there were several lengthy passages I had highlighted. By finishing the book and letting it sit, I was able to look back to see that many covered the same topic. I could then pick the one that best expressed what I wanted to remember or consider. Waiting also gives you the opportunity to have a response to what you’ve read. The first question of my response was initially jotted in the margin and then developed more in the following week’s reflection.

3. Use pen and paper. 

Of course it would be easier to make this digital. This is not a practice in what is easy but in what is lasting. Cut/paste will not make the information lodge in your long-term memory. It also doesn’t act as a filter. Knowing each passage is hand written will prompt you to really consider whether it’s worth it or not. Many people also think that writing it out with your own hand allows you to feel the rhythm and flow of good writing. It is slow and methodical, giving you the chance to notice every word in its place, to meditate on the details, and come away with a deeper understanding of what is being expressed and how it is imparted effectively. Using pen and paper also elevates the value of the information. If you have the means, choosing a high quality journal and making the pages as beautiful as you can through neat penmanship and attractive title pages convey the value you place on what is enclosed. (My favorite so far is the Confidant by Baron Fig.)

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I give the titles their own page, which more clearly separates one reading from another, gives credit to the author, provides some context, and corresponds with the Table of Contents.

4. Utilize a system of organization.

You can be as minimal or tedious in this as you choose. I knew that if I used a very complex and thorough system, it would bog me down too much. I may find that later on I can begin incorporating more to archive the passages, but as it is now, I use a Table of Contents at the beginning of my book and I use two different colored pens: black for quoted passages, and blue for my own responses. You don’t have to tag everything, have a detailed index at the back, or have a digital database it all gets sorted into if you don’t want. (Though if this is how you roll, there are plenty of methods you could research by googling “how to organize a commonplace book.”) No matter what method you use, it ought to include numbering your pages. Some people find blank pages or dot grids more helpful than lined pages, especially if you will be including charts and graphs or you are one who responds visually rather than verbally.

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Quoted passages are in black with my responses in blue. This allows me to more quickly find what I’m looking for and removes confusion about who the writer is.

I hope this is helpful to you. I have only been commonplacing for a few months, but it has made such a difference in the way I have interacted with my reading, making connections between different authors and subjects, and in the cultivation of new ideas. I will often be responding to a passage from a book I read and will look back later and think There’s an essay here. For writers especially, commonplacing is that bridge between the reader and the writer within you. If you know me in real life, I’d love to help you get started. If not, and you have more questions or you already commonplace and want to share about it, send me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

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