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In Praise of Notebooks
finding a genre
When I packed up to move to Ann Arbor, I decided to bring only a single notebook with me. For the next several months, that single thick notebook was where I kept my journal, my class notes, the two novels I was writing at the time, and my general musings. I didn’t divide it into sections. The same page might share notes about my class schedule, character notes for the story, a quick recounting of a conversation I wanted to remember, and the name of a book on Meso-American archaeology a professor had recommended.
It was a patchwork delight to reread. I dreamed of one day publishing the novel, and including some of the other pieces of marginalia around it. The whole of the notebook felt so unified, so much the single vigorous shape of my life breaching through the pages, that I couldn’t imagine separating the pieces.
I haven’t seen that notebook in probably ten years. I wonder how it would look to me now.
Susan Sontag’s journals were a strange inspiration to me. I’ve always described her essays along the lines of “she forces me to disagree in interesting ways,” and her journals didn’t deviate from that pattern. She seemed like a strange and forceful woman.
All I remember from her journals is a line that felt uncomfortably familiar: “strength is what I want; not strength to endure—for that I have, and it has made me weak—but strength to act.”
I always knew exactly where Simone Weil’s notebooks were in the library stacks. Sometimes I hid them in the third floor of the graduate library, a low-ceilinged section with few desks where no one ever went. I was sick of them getting checked out on me.
I admired her notebooks, the way that you could watch her dance around an idea, slowly coming up on it in the fog. She’d briefly mention some line in a book she’d read, then a conversation she’d had with someone about it; a page later she’d formulate a couple clumsy versions of a resulting idea, feeling towards it blindfolded; and eventually out of those fragments and intimations, two or three paragraphs of lucid heartful essay would emerge.
There was something special about the roughness of the format. If I’d read the same ideas only as essays, I might not have felt them so directly. But watching them clumsily, slowly pull together; watching certain rough phrases repeat and gain polish; it brought me much closer to the shape of the Current Beneath Language she was grappling with. Reading her notebooks, I felt in my heart what I otherwise would have merely seen with my eyes.
The Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, The Birds of Paradise by R.D. Laing, Lichtenberg’s “Waste Books”—they all shared a particular quality. Somehow their fractured materials added up to an evocative whole. The clumsiness of their mosaics pointed beyond words in a way that more polished books rarely do.
Watching the author try, try, try again. Watching them follow the inscrutable urging of their soul as they pile quotes, ruminations, aphorisms, musings, rants, and scenes, one after another. You can feel the muscle memory of their soul, twisting their way down into the soil of history and reality and personhood. You can sense this muscle memory in yourself.
If an essay is a smooth surface to run my fingers over and feel a rarefied delight over, a notebook is a movement. A form of manual labor I’m invite to watch, to mimic, to train in. In reading a notebook, I sweat and exert myself alongside the writer, jamming my shovel into the earth and feeling the same writhing of underground rivers that they do. I learn the reflexes of their souls; their styles of dowsing for meaning.
The recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making.
- William James
We live by tunneling, for we are people buried alive. To me, the tunnels you make would seem strangely aimless, uprooted orchids. But the fragrance is undying.
- Anne Carson