Compiling a commonplace book using obsidian.md

Taking strings and weaving knowledge using visualisation software.

When studying for my undergraduate degree in 2008, I started writing down things my friends said. Funny things, pithy remarks, sweet comments. Meaningful memories. I knew I had trouble remembering them aurally, and writing them down helped. This soon morphed into taking notes from my tutors and lecturers verbatim, trying to capture the essence of their personalities as well as the academic content. (I was studying a joint honours degree in anthropology and linguistics, so this isn’t really surprising.)

Over the next year I started writing down excerpts from books I was reading, not because I wanted to use them in my dissertation, but because I wanted to remember them for the rest of my life. They were important ideas that shaped who I wanted to become. The human brain continues to develop well into your twenties, and I was at a very small, very radical university. I wanted to expose myself to as many ideas as possible and see what happened.

It sparked a (currently decade-long, though I hope lifelong) practice about which I am absolutely evangelical: keeping a commonplace book.

A commonplace book is essentially a scrapbook. You dump all kinds of information in there, and centralise your various streams/pools of knowledge.

They have been kept across all kinds of cultures over thousands of years. And I have one on my laptop.

It was originally a notebook. Then two. And they were filled with utter nonsense — the kind that makes you smile to re-read and remember. One day, however, I decided I wanted to change tack. I had just read something in a book from one field that reminded me of something from a book in a totally different discipline — I wish I could remember what it was (it would make this watershed moment far more memorable) but alas. I dutifully copied things out into a Word document. It was two pages long.

A few years later, I iterated again. I wanted to share my document (now into double digit page numbers) with someone but knew it would become almost instantly deprecated. So I made it a Google Docs document and shared the link. I removed the funny, personal things and it became a list of quotes from books, journals, films, TV shows I had carefully excised… In some cases, rather too carefully, and I had lost the context, or the author, or the book/page number. The essence remained, though, and I carried on. At first it was one-liners (or a particularly nice turn of phrase) that I kept, but slowly the quotes grew into multi-line blocks, transferring ideas and concepts rather than just idioms. Sometimes I wasn’t quite sure what had struck me, but I knew I wanted to keep the line or clause or paragraph, so in it went. It would sit, ungerminated, in my brain until a chance encounter with another idea many months later would strike it — like flint on steel — and a little spark would appear. I grew to deeply appreciate the wealth of knowledge I was adding to, one tiny character at a time, over the years.

As I moved into working in software and the document grew longer and longer (60 A4 pages… 80 pages… 100 pages…) I grew accustomed to developers looking aghast at the idea of a jumble of information with no referencing system beyond Command+F, no database, no tagging — what on earth was I doing?! Good grief. But I rather felt they missed the point. This was not data to be reduced down to a handful of themes. This eclectic mix was capable of immense creative cross-pollination. Its power — and, indeed, its joy —was borne almost entirely of its anarchy. If anything, the only automation I sought to pursue was a small web app to randomly pluck two quotes from the document and have a think about them in relation to each other. Easy enough to make, but I could never be bothered. I was more concerned with the problems of scaling this commonplace book. I was beginning to forget the nuances of the many wonderful things I had read and selected, magpie-like, to bring back to my mental nest. I needed to find a way to turn this linear document — one quote after another — into something reflexive, that could bend back on itself and self-refer continuously. How to create the mobius strip of intellectual interiority* that does not struggle when added to with potentially 50 books each year?

Someone at work mentioned obsidian.md in passing (one of life’s many superb serendipities) and I took a look. Here’s the process I went through to transfer my work into obsidian, and what I learned…

I added a handful of books, and started tagging one (Steppenwolf) with themes, concepts, anything that I felt fit:

I added some more books:

I added all the rough versions of the books as markdown files, and it started to look a little fuller:

I cleaned up all the markdown files and started tagging things:

I went through the books starting with A (10 books) and the relevant section of the graph started to look… well, a little full, but already I started to see and remember connections between the books I hadn’t fully realised at the time. I could almost feel the new neural connections:

And obsidian lets you highlight specific dots:

At around two thirds of the way through, I took a break to check the graph. The books that I hadn’t yet reached were clearly outliers, unconnected to the rest of the mycelium of knowledge:

(At this point, I decided to show my husband who feigned an immediate headache and bemoaned the obscene visual complexity. I didn’t tell him I still had another third to go.)

I became weary of attaching tags to each individual snippet and started simply collating them at the top:

I finished all the books. The only .md file I didn’t tackle was the monstrously long Individuals file, which I haven’t decided what to do with yet (see later bulletpoint). Here’s what the graph looks like:

It’s kind of awful and overwhelming but I’m learning how to use it:

So, at the very least, I have a quick reference guide if I need “all the things I have on xyz topic”. Neat!

Lastly, I have the memory of a sieve and kept forgetting where I’d stored this work. I got tired of finding it using mdfind (one of the best CLI commands ever, searches for whatever you pass it as a string) so I put it in my bash profile. Now I can just type uncomm and be taken straight to the right directory.

There are still things I would like to “improve”:

  • Some of the most beautiful entries are simply delightful turn-of-phrases. What value do I want from these beyond appreciation? By studying them, Data-like, can I train myself to craft language in this way (I wish)? How can I implement or extend obsidian to help me do this?
  • I don’t use the powerful[[keyword]] syntax at all. Am I over-using #tags? (Answer: probably)
  • There is a single massive file called Individuals which has quotes from individual contributors where I didn’t have the context, and thought it didn’t work well to have individual and book in the same tree structure. Is is possible my information architecture is wrong? (Answer: yes, I just haven’t the energy to sort it out right now)

Overall, I’m really enjoying using obsidian to store these quotes from now on. It’s genuinely extremely fun to have and been very interesting to create.

Thanks for reading. If you should ever want to read/see this in action for yourself, the repo is on Github and obsidian.md is free.

*this particular phrase is lifted from a fantastically-written review — just the sort of thing I both put in the commonplace book and have never forgotten reading

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Technical Writer. Former NHS OT and software developer in health tech. I like bikes and plants. www.ioreka.dev

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Lucy Mitchell

Technical Writer. Former NHS OT and software developer in health tech. I like bikes and plants. www.ioreka.dev