The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (2016)


Chapter 3. Keeping the Journal: A Written Record of New Ideas

Once a day . . . call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what further confirmation of known truths, and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge.

Improvement of the Mind

FOR YEARS I’VE read Agatha Christie at bedtime. Christie’s prose doesn’t exactly sing, and by now I know how every single mystery ends. But I can read these books over and over again, because I’m using only half my brain, while the other half recycles the events of the day and tucks them away, one by one. I don’t gain much from the book itself, but I sleep well.

The same half-attentive method of reading dogs me when I turn to serious literature. I read; a door slams; my attention wanders to the door, to the window, to undone jobs, to family dilemmas and work difficulties. I am not alone in this; our lives are full, and so are our minds. David Denby’s lyrical complaint in Great Books is true of us all:

I can no longer submit to fiction . . . I read and stop, read and stop, a train halted by obstacles on the track, bad weather, power failures. Everyone complains that young people, growing up on TV, movies, video games, and rap music, lack the patience for long, complex, written narratives, and yet as a child I had not watched all that much television, and I had also lost my patience in middle age . . . [M]y life had grown much more complex. I was married to a clever and formidable woman, and there were two kids running around; I had multiple jobs and a lot more to think about than I had had at eighteen. A much larger experience was now casting up its echoes.1

When we sit in front of Plato or Shakespeare or Conrad, “simply reading” isn’t enough. We must learn to fix our minds, to organize our reading so that we are able to retain the skeleton of the ideas that pass in front of our eyes. We must not simply read, Isaac Watts tells us, but “meditate and study,” an act that “transfers and conveys the notions and sentiments of others to ourselves, so as to make them properly our own.”

How is this done? By keeping a journal to organize your thoughts about your reading. What we write, we remember. What we summarize in our own words becomes our own.

For earlier generations, the journal wasn’t—as it is in modern times—primarily a tool to reflect on your feelings. Present-day use of the word journal tends to imply that you’re creating a subjective, intensively inward-focused collection of thoughts and musings. Witness, for example, the ideas and exercises offered in a sample issue of the magazine Personal Journaling: travel journaling (“Which traditions or customs are you comfortable with and which make you uneasy? Why?”), dream journaling (“What does this dream tell me about the way I treat myself?”), creative journaling (“Focus on a specific topic and write everything you can think of, never lifting your pen”), and mind-body journaling (“The wise teacher is within you, and through writing you can begin to ‘hear’ her more clearly”). (Personal Journaling also tells you how to make decorative handmade paper with newsprint, dryer lint, and a blender, should you wish to make your journal an objet d’art as well as a diary.)

But the journal of self-education has a more outward focus. It is modeled on the last century’s “commonplace book,” a looseleaf or bound blank book in which readers copied down quotes and snippets that they wanted to remember.

In its simplest form, the commonplace book was a handmade Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, a memory aid for the writer. Many commonplace books contained nothing but these quotes. They may be instructive for what the writer chooses to record; Jefferson’s college-days Commonplace Book contains, among other quotations, Euripedes’ observation “Alas, no one among mortals is free; for either he is the slave of wealth or fortune, or else the populace or legal technicalities compel him to resort to practices that are contrary to his belief.” Commonplace books reveal, as Gilbert Chinard remarks on Jefferson’s own collections, the extent to which “the study of the classics was . . . an essential part in the moral foundation of many of the men who framed the American institutions.”2 But these traditional commonplace books contain no musings on the collected quotes, no clue to the writer’s thoughts as he copied Euripedes or Plato onto the page. The personal aspect is missing.

Occasionally, though, commonplace books took on a more personalized form. Their authors carried them around and jotted in them at odd moments during the day. The commonplace books gathered reflections, scraps of original verse and other creative writing, and summaries of books read, as well as the de rigueur bits of copied information. They became artificial memories.

The journal used for self-education should model itself after this expanded type of commonplace book. It is neither an unadorned collection of facts, nor an entirely inward account of what’s going on in your heart and soul. Rather, the journal is the place where the reader takes external information and records it (through the use of quotes, as in the commonplace book); appropriates it through a summary, written in the reader’s own words; and then evaluates it through reflection and personal thought. As you read, you should follow this three-part process: jot down specific phrases, sentences, and paragraphs as you come across them; when you’ve finished your reading, go back and write a brief summary about what you’ve learned; and then write your own reactions, questions, and thoughts.

In this way, the journal connects objective and subjective learning, an ideal described by Bronson Alcott in his own journal of 1834:

Education is that process by which thought is opened out of the soul, and, associated with outward . . . things, is reflected back upon itself, and thus made conscious of its reality and shape. It is Self-Realization. . . . He who is seeking to know himself, should be ever seeking himself in external things, and by so doing will he be best able to find, and explore his inmost light.3

The goal of classical self-education is this: not merely to “stuff” facts into your head, but to understand them. Incorporate them into your mental framework. Reflect on their meaning for the internal life. The “external things”—be they Platonic philosophy, the actions of an Austen heroine, or a political biography—make us more conscious of our own “reality and shape.” This, not mere accumulation, is the goal of self-education. The journal is the place where this learning happens.

The first step toward understanding is to grasp exactly what is being said, and the oldest and most reliable way of grasping information is to put it into your own words. To master the content of what you read, summarize.

Lydia Sigourney advises her young female readers to summarize their reading often:

At the close of every week, abridge in writing, the subjects that you deem most valuable. . . . Write them neatly in a book kept for that purpose—but not in the language of the author. . . . Let this be a repository of condensed knowledge, the pure gold of thought. . . . To strengthen the memory, the best course is not to commit page after page verbatim [as though most of us would!], but to give the substance of the author, correctly and clearly in your own language.4

The journal should contain, first, the “substance” of what has been read.

These summaries often provide a jumping-off point for further reflections; E. M. Forster’s Commonplace Book is just such an autodidact’s journal. “Far more than a dictionary-defined compendium of striking ‘quotations, poems and remarks,’” writes Philip Gardner, the editor of the version of the Commonplace Book published after Forster’s death, “[I]t provides a commentary—sharp, wry, and frequently very moving—on the second half of Forster’s life.” Forster records snippets of his own reading:


He that blesseth his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it shall be counted a curse to him. XXVII 14

As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man. XXVII 19

Now all is done, save what shall have no end.

—Shakespeare, Sonnet 110, Tyrwhitt’s emendation.5

He evaluates his reading, recording his criticisms:

Hedda Gabler fails because nothing of importance has been changed. . . . However Ibsen may have known this as well as me and have desired to stage absolute unimportance as his heroine. He certainly wishes to show her as cowardly, restless, and weak.6

The personal certainly isn’t missing in Forster’s Commonplace Book. In 1947 he jots down, apropos of nothing:

The evening sky behind Fellows’ Building. A cone of cloud . . . mottled with pink and gold—both faint, and the word mottled is too strong. Immensely large aesthetically speaking. I have no idea of its linear measurement.7

And in 1953, recovering from a visit to the dentist, he writes:

Writers ought to write and I take up my pen in the hope it may loosen my spirit. . . . It is 6.45. Feb. 26th. . . .Tony Hyndman has been in. . . . I was not very friendly to him, I did not want to be bothered, and was not warm-hearted. . . . It is 7:30. Cannot writers write quicker? I have been “thinking.”8

This is very close to the “creative journaling” of Personal Journaling. But more often than not, the personal is anchored to some phrase or idea that has struck Forster in his reading. He muses, for example, on a line from Thomas Gray:

When Thomas Gray writes, “I know what it is to lose a person that one’s eyes and heart have long been used to . . .” I recognize an affinity. Laziness and loyalty have a connection.9

And Forster’s methods of summarizing and evaluating his reading exactly demonstrate the purpose of the classical journal. In 1942, Forster has just finished reading Thomas Hodgkin’s Italy and Her Invaders 376–476. His journal entry reads, in part:

Why did Rome fall? . . .

Subsidiary causes were

i. The foundation of Constantinople, due to fear of Persia: danger from the north never realised. “It was the diffusion of her vital force over several nerve centers, Carthage, Antioch, Alexandria, but above all Constantinople that ruined her. Some of the old tree perished.”

ii. Christianity—despite St. Augustine’s view. For it opposed the deification of the Emperor which consecrated the state. . . .10

He concludes his summary of the reading, and then adds his own thoughts:

My original impulse in this excursion was the discovery of parallels, then I was diverted into interest in the past, now that too is flagging, and I have driven myself with difficulty to finish this analysis. My ignorance and the powerlessness of knowledge weigh on me. . . .”11

This is a model of the summarizing that Sigourney recommends. Here Forster restates the main points of his reading in his own words, quotes word for word where Hodgkin supplies a succinct sentence of his own, connects each of Hodgkin’s points to the woes of the present day, and then adds a heartfelt commentary on his own emotional reactions to the crumpling of great empires.

Thomas Merton followed a similar strategy in keeping his own notebooks. In The Asian Journal, collected from the notebooks kept during the last part of his life, we find, in the span of three pages, quotes copied from T. R. V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (“Reflective consciousness is necessarily the consciousness of the false”), a record of Merton’s morning walk (“I walked and said Lauds under the croptomeria trees on Observatory Hill, and the chanting came up strong and clear from below. A man was doing vigorous exercises by the shelter that overlooks the valley . . . shimmying in the sun”), and Merton’s own summary of his reading, incorporating direct quotes (“Conze comments on the fact that communication between East and West has not so far done much for philosophy. ‘So far European and particularly British philosophers have reacted by becoming more provincial than ever before’”).12

Classical self-education demands that you understand, evaluate, and react to ideas. In your journal, you will record your own summaries of your reading; this is your tool for understanding the ideas you read. This—the mastery of facts—is the first stage of classical education.


“If we would fix in the memory the discourses we hear,” Watts writes, “or what we design to speak, let us abstract them into brief compends, and review them often.” As the next step in your self-education, practice this skill with this book.

1. Invest in a journal: looseleaf notebook, blank book, or other type of journal.

2. Continue to keep to your schedule of reading four times per week. Use this time to read Chapter 4, jotting down notes and then writing brief summaries. Follow these guidelines:

a. Write the title of the chapter on the first page of your notebook. Read through the entire chapter once without stopping. If any particular ideas, phrases, or sentences strike you, go ahead and jot them down.

b. Chapter 4 is divided into three major sections. Try to summarize each section in your own words. Ask yourself: What is the most important point that the writer makes in this section? If I could remember only one thing from this section, what would it be? Now, what else does the writer tell me about this important point that I’d like to remember? Make the summary for each section a separate paragraph. Leave very wide margins (two to three inches) on either side of your paragraphs.

c. When you have done this for the entire chapter, glance back over your summary paragraphs. Now write down your reactions to the information in each summary. Use the margins of your paper for this (a different pen color is also helpful).


1David Denby, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 47.

2Gilbert Chinard, introduction to The Literary Bible of Thomas Jefferson: His Commonplace Book of Philosophers (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928), p. 4.

3Amos Bronson Alcott, The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1938), p. 43.

4Sigourney, Letters to Young Ladies, pp. 54–55, 145.

5E. M. Forster, Commonplace Book, ed. Philip Gardner (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985), p. 139.

6Ibid., p. 36.

7Ibid., p. 174.

8Ibid., p. 192.

9Ibid., pp. 179–80.

10Ibid., p. 139.

11Ibid., p. 141.

12Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, ed. Naomi Burton, Brother Patrick Hart, and James Laughlin (New York: New Directions, 1973), pp. 139–41.