I have never been a regular diarist but I have always carried along one or two notebooks. They are messy and incoherent. Full of plans (most of which never materialise) and feelings (that turn out to be short-lived and unreasonable). The notebooks aren’t worth much but they are a source of inexplicable comfort and joy to me. If I were compelled, I’d be willing to part with many of my concrete possessions but never these.
Why do we keep notebooks? Why do we record our thoughts? Why do we love doing this? The American writer Joan Didion (born 1934) examined these questions in a essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook”, included in her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), a significant portrait of America – particularly California – in the 1960s. The collection derives its title from the famous poem “The Second Coming” by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939). The essay “On Keeping a Notebook” is available from Farrar, Straus and Giroux as part of the original collection as well as in a much larger anthology of Didion’s non-fiction called We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (2006) published by Everyman’s Library.
Back to the topic. Didion looks at some of the things she has scribbled in her notebook and writes that she was never interested in merely developing a sequential account of events – this happened, then that happened. Even though a personal notebook may easily contain a documentation of mundane activities, there’s a higher, deeper purpose behind the whole enterprise. Didion first observes:
…the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?
Then she explains what – according to her – is the real point:
We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing…Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.
And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”
On the whole, a notebook contains “an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage” but in it the maker finds meaning. They can turn to it any number of times to regain a sense of self – for in there the “I” remains magically preserved, undiminished and undimmed by the world.