How to Keep a Commonplace Book: Background information when reading Why We Broke Up

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Why We Broke Up

by Daniel Handler, Maira Kalman

Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler, Maira Kalman
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2011, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2013, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lucia Silva

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
How to Keep a Commonplace Book

Print Review

Min's narrative-through-objects reminded me of a "commonplace book" I kept in high school at the urging of my (wonderful) 10th grade English teacher. Commonplace books became very popular during the Renaissance, used as a kind of intellectual filing system, whereby one collected poems, proverbs, quotes, and other material around a particular subject or theme.* Over time, the idea expanded to encompass a more modern combination of a scrapbook and a diary filled with sketches, photographs, articles, mementos, even mathematical equations.

Commonplace Book Freed of the aesthetic demands of a traditional scrapbook, or the literary expectations of a diary, the rules are yours to make and break. I was never good at keeping up with a diary, but I loved my commonplace journal. I would select a seemingly unimportant artifact from my day, paste or tape it into my journal, and use that as a jumping-off point for reflection. I'd pocket an empty sugar-packet and pair it with reflections on a conversation I had with a friend over coffee; a torn-off grade from a test might inspire a rant over the stupidity of high school; a seedpod might have inspired a poem or a sketch. I loved how the journal bulged with its contents, and was often surprised by where my thoughts went.

Have you ever seen a teenager's notebook, covered in collage, quotes, and song lyrics? Keeping a commonplace book is a low-pressure way to develop this natural impulse to collect, exalt, and memorialize, and take it to another level. The reflection can be just a few words, or a few pages. Anything one might collect in a drawer or stick on a bulletin board could be used for inspiration. Try dumping out your backpack or your purse at the end of the day, and see if anything bound for the trashcan catches your eye. Tape it in, grab a pen, and see where it takes you.

*It's interesting to note that several characters in Lemony Snicket's (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) Series of Unfortunate Events keep commonplace books of this more traditional variety.

Article by Lucia Silva

This article was originally published in January 2012, and has been updated for the December 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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