On Keeping a Notebook
“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
So writes Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which seems to be frequently assigned in graduate-level English classes, so that I was able to snatch this quote off the internet as soon as I determined this morning to write about notebooks. Apparently, when she wrote this piece, keeping a notebook was rare (although no, it wasn’t), or the distinction between notebook and diary had to be made explicit. As far as this quote goes, I say: speak for yourself, Joan.
But to say “speak for yourself,” to Joan Didion is so much a tautology than I can scarcely think of another example, unless it were, say, “Spell it out, Sesame Street.”
I keep a notebook and admit that I am lonely and a malcontent (perhaps another tautology?) but I dispute “resistant rearranger of things” because I’m not sure what it means, and “presentiment of loss” as a child because, in the case of my childhood, it was not a presentiment, but an observation.
I have been thinking lately about notebooks, not only because they are the only things I hoard – I have come to terms with that – and not only because I recently, after several stressful weeks at the day job, rewarded myself by breaking out the fanciest notebook in my hall closet collection.
It is this one, a Japanese notebook from the bookstore Kinokuniya across from Bryant Park. I would say more about the brand but alas, the product information is in Japanese. This notebook weighs too much and costs too much but otherwise, it fits all the criteria for an ideal notebook. It does not impede the flow of writing. It lies flat. The paper is soft enough to be pleasant to the hand resting on it. (The paper in this Kinokuniya notebook is the softest thing I have ever felt that is not fabric, skin or fur.) It is quick to seize ink. It resists a tear (in both senses.) And the notebook itself is sturdy enough to survive the apparent turmoil of the life inside of my handbag.
In the Poetry Folio newsletter released today from Atticus Review that landed in my inbox this morning, poet Michael Meyerhofer reminisced about his favorite notebooks to keep, the free pocket-sized notebooks issued from the bank in the small farming town he grew up in – “twenty or thirty blank pages about as long as your index finger.” He took a stack of them with him to college and maintains an appreciation for them even as electronic note-taking has gradually replaced them. He writes that sometimes all we can do is “fill these tiny little pages while we can.”
A few weeks back, I attended a members-only night at the Whitney Museum, where I learned that the Whitney has a great many members. The Whitney is in its final weeks of an exhibit devoted to Edward Hopper. I learned in the gift shop that Edward Hopper used to roam the city armed with notebooks purchased from the five-and-dime. Edward Hopper! Now here’s a “lonely and resistant rearranger of things”! He found, in the clamor of a relentlessly bustling metropolis, images of solitary and faceless office workers, viewed through plate-glass windows, caught in a melancholy stillness. We might envision Hopper, passing such a scene on the elevated train, which he reportedly rode sometimes all night, grabbing his dimestore notebook to rough out a future painting.
Or we might envision, as a savvier and presumably less melancholy and presentiment-of-loss-afflicted merchandising executive did, reproducing these Woolworth notebooks used by Hopper, with their old-timey typeface announcing their old-fashioned titles – “Ledger,” “Cash,” “Journal” – to sell in the Whitney gift shop for $18.50.
I’m not here to decry the cost. My Kinokuniya notebook — with its more daunting title “Life” — cost even more than that. But I am wondering what is the appeal of the reproduction of a once-cheap, utilitarian notebook. Why has such an object been elevated to the status of a museum gift shop item? The notebook was not designed by Hopper, or touched by Hopper but only implicitly endorsed by Hopper. And even that implicit endorsement is a long stretch. He probably used those notebooks because they were handy. He was a broke artist. He was more interested in the message than the medium.
I don’t know what a buyer of one of these notebooks hopes to be purchasing. Perhaps she just thinks it’s cute. Who am I to judge? (Okay, I’m judging a bit.) But it took me years of this notebook and that one, the here-you-like-to-write gifts and the singular bliss to be found in day job supply closets, to realize what suited notebooks suited me and why. The imperative is that it does not impede the flow of writing. So I have smaller notebooks, pocket-sized ones, old-fashioned reporter notebooks that can fit in one hand while you use the other to write, lightweight notebooks for a weekend trip, steno pads bought at office supply stores if I forgot to bring anything and yes, of course, tiny free pamphlets.
I suppose I would encourage anyone who hopes to channel inspiration by purchasing a reproduction of the kind of notebook Hopper favored to instead find her own notebook. As Cavafy encouraged his readers to find their own Ithaka.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
But if you were wise, on that journey, you kept a notebook.