Rule number one of good writing: ensure your title is clear and accessible, avoid using jargon. Having chosen to ignore this wise counsel I should now explain myself. Florilegium is the Latin word for bouquet, or more literally flowers (flos, flor-) which are gathered (legere). In Medieval times, the word florilegium was used to refer to a compilation of writings, often religious or philosophical. A florilegium was a book of literary flowers—beautiful words, often centering on a certain theme or topic.  

I keep a florilegium. It is leather-bound, I take it with me everywhere I go. When I write in it, I only use my favorite fountain pen. In my florilegium, I write captivating or provocative sentences and paragraphs taken from my reading. I mark up my books as I go. When finished, I work through them again and transfer everything that I found especially meaningful or insightful to my florilegium. In this way, it is a select record of my reading. In it are the beautiful words that I have read.  

Why do I do this? Why do I think that all serious learners should consider keeping a florilegium? When used properly, a florilegium serves the intended end of reading: shaping the mind. It is a tool that helps me take the beautiful words, the great ideas and make them my own. Through the florilegium, what I have read embeds itself inside of me and affects the way I live. How does this work? The florilegium is part of a journey, one that begins whenever I pick up a book.  

The Journey of Reading 

Every book is written with the goal to persuade. Just as no author writes out of a vacuum, neither does he write into a vacuum. He has in mind an audience, and he writes for them. Whether his piece is prosaic or poetic, whether he is writing about politics or pottery, he wants to show his readers his vantage point, and for them to embrace it. Every book is an attempt to change your worldview. Richard Weaver alludes to this reality when he comments on the power of the sentence: “The sentence through its office of assertion is a force adding itself to the forces of the world…The changes wrought by sentences are changes in the world.”

This places a high precedent on the act of reading. Digesting anything that comes across your path probably isn’t wise. Time is short and you don’t want to waste it. Neither is restricting yourself to one or two favorite authors. If this is your approach to reading, your learning will be limited. Through the written word you have access to an unlimited number of perspectives, opinions, and world views. You must choose carefully those from which you learn. This does not mean that you only read ideas and ideologies with which you already agree. Even if you disagree completely with an author, reading his work could still be an opportunity to learn. His views will sharpen yours and force you to give a reason for your convictions.  

When you have chosen your book, you must now avail yourself fully of the reading opportunity. Don’t hurry. Speed reading is the enemy of understanding. Take notes. Active learning is always better than passive. Dialogue with a partner. Rehearsing what you have read brings clarity to your own understanding. Fight the temptation to “just get through” the book. The reward that comes from mastering the author’s argument will dwarf what small amount of satisfaction you feel when you read only to finish. Do not be discouraged if you need to revisit a paragraph, section, or chapter several times over. Comprehension is your priority. If you follow this standard advice for good reading, you will benefit significantly from the many hours you spend in a book. Again, you might not agree with the author when you finish, you may not want to be shaped by his worldview. But until you have understood thoroughly his argument, you cannot know. For this reason, Adler and Van Doren give as a maxim of intellectual etiquette comprehension as the precursor to assessment. “Do not say you agree, [or] disagree…until you can say 'I understand.'”2 

When you finish the book, your journey is complete. You are ready to move on to your next volume. Sadly, many readers think this is true. They retire the chosen book onto a shelf believing that whatever benefit it offers, they possess it entirely and eternally. In reality, even the most astute readers have only begun to engage with the compelling idea. They have yet to take possession of it. As the book collects dust on the shelf, the memorable quote fades, the persuasive argument evaporates.  

There is another step in the journey of reading, and it is arguably the most important. If you are truly impressed with the book you have just read, you don’t want to lose its offerings. You want to keep bringing the compelling argument before you. You want to keep revisiting the captivating perspective. The point is not simply that you want to enjoy the beautiful words again, though there is much to be said in favor of rereading a book for enjoyment. If the author has helped you to see the world in a new way, you want to do more than simply acknowledge the fact.

Rather than allow the impression the book has made on your mind to fade with the passing of time, you want to take ownership of the new thought, the new perspective. You want it to shape your mind. 

This is the role of the florilegium. By writing down the most compelling thoughts from your reading, you can return to them with ease. Now they do not fade with the passing of time—quite the opposite. The florilegium is a record of beautiful words that go with you, and become your beautiful words.  

Keeping a Florilegium  

Keeping a florilegium entails a process within itself. As I mentioned, you must be diligent to mark up your book as you read. Then, you transfer the compelling ideas. Thereafter, you return to your florilegium often, reading and rereading what you recorded there. Eventually, its pages will become familiar to you. The words on it will sit before you, even when the florilegium does not. I can picture in my mind’s eye the first page of my florilegium, and the first quote that is written there. You will find that with a degree of diligence and consistency you will internalize the beautiful words. Now the journey of reading is complete. Each book has shaped (or continues to shape) your mind. You are a different person for having read.  

In order for this final step to work most effectively, there are a few principles that I would offer with regards to keeping a florilegium.

First, in its form, it should be beautiful. If you want to treasure the words inside of it, you should avoid a cheap, unimpressive notebook from the dollar store. Invest in something worth keeping. Have a florilegium that you want to carry everywhere.

Second, when you write a few lines in your florilegium, take your time, form the words well. Use a beautiful pen and try to employ excellent penmanship. Again, you will not be compelled to revisit sentences that appear scruffy on the page.

Third, be selective in what you record. If the barrier to entry for my reading list is high, the criteria for recording words in my florilegium is even higher. Writing down anything that is mildly interesting negates the value of the exercise.  The florilegium is no longer a bouquet of flowers, but a gathering of anything you found in the garden.

Fourth, develop the habit of carrying your florilegium with you everywhere. I have mine with me more often than I do my keys, wallet, or phone. Life is busy. It’s unlikely that you will add to your calendar a window to review your florilegium. It’s even more unlikely that you would keep such an appointment. But if the florilegium is your constant companion, when you have a quiet moment, you can open and read. You no longer need to scan social media when waiting for your coffee. You don’t need to check the news when filling up with gas. You don’t even need to read your emails when you have five minutes between meetings. The florilegium is always waiting, full of beautiful words. I read something from mine in the quiet moments of the day. I turn to it while I’m waiting for the next class to begin. Sometimes, I take my florilegium to dinner with others. When conversation is lacking, I offer a quote from inside. Never has this failed to yield rich, edifying conversation. 

Victor Hugo wrote: “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” This is true, only insomuch as we learn to read well. Good reading shapes the mind. It forms the soul and establishes a way of being in the world. To read well means we resist the spirit of the age—books are not tweets. They ask us to think, consider, and respond. If an author’s argument is worth retaining, we should retain it. History commends to us the florilegium: a choice gathering of rich ideas that follow us around. If we keep bringing the beautiful words before us—reading, thinking, florilegium—they begin to have their way with us. Through them we become something new.   


[1] Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1972. 

[2] Weaver, Richard. The Ethics of Rhetoric. Chicago: Regnery, 1953.