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Notebooks

The difference between writing on loose paper and writing in a notebook is in the relationship of the writer and the thing written. Unless you pledge to care for them, you may expect to outlive your loose papers. They will be lost, be thrown out, or wear out—simply, age and die. But barring catastrophe, you may expect that your notebooks will outlive you. And a notebook has a kind of life, insofar as it is hard to kill: the things which could destroy it—fire and flood—are the same as those which could destroy you.

This is true even of cheap notebooks. Some, arguing from the perishability of loose paper, suppose that notebooks age at the same rate. But a closed book of whatever kind defies time. From my own slight library I have before me now, as I write, a book from 1944 containing a a pressed carnation as a messenger of the sunlight of 60 years ago; and a book from 1906 wherein is interleaved a sheet of cheap ruled paper (which has turned the brown of a paper grocery bag) with someone's homework in Roman history. It is probably a decade or two less than a 100 years old; but it is safe to suppose that the man is long dead whom the boy became who wrote: "The Romans who were mostly peasants by working hard on their farms acquired the strength of will which made them the best soldiers of the world." Perhaps his children are dead, and his grandchildren know little more of him than his name. But kept by covers, the cheap paper can still be unfolded and re-folded after a near-century of Louisiana summers.

To start a notebook, even while young, is to feel the reality of futurity and posterity. Decades on, your friends, your place, your name, the world may have changed; your face, your frame and figure, will have changed. What you will be, you would not now recognize. But you may still have, you may still read, you may still use that same notebook.

Or after a hundred years? Lost to accident and inconsideration; burnt up or drowned; or mouldering deep in some distant garbage dump, like a message in a bottle which never sees the shore? Or browsed by curious descendants of an unimagined generation, who would otherwise know you only as a few garbled stories, a fading or grotesquely discolored photograph, and a few characteristic gestures and a bad joke on film? Or annexed to some unborn historian's or anthropologist's collection, as a lens through which that age to come, with its own preoccupations, may enter into sympathy with the past and gain perspective on itself? Or displayed in a museum, as a curious time capsule—or as the monument of a departed mind? Under the sky we know, or under a new sky in a city yet to be named?

We, dead, will not decide. But our notebooks are like the trees an old man plants—given not to anyone, but for the sake of giving.

10 comments:

Brian Darvell said...

I love the historic quality that notebooks have. They give off a timeless character that is too quickly forgotten in todays high-speed world.

I have often wished that my past relatives had found time to keep a personal journal that I would have been fortunate enough to read so many years later. I hope, perhaps a little vainly, that my distant children, grandchildren and hopefully onwards might cherish my journals one day. It is perhaps too much to ask but I can see worse traits to have other than hoping your own thoughts and writings might see a future light beyond your own eyes.

P. M. Rodriguez said...

It is no more vain, I would think, to hope for posterity in thought, than for posterity in lineage.

Song said...

This post gave me chills :)

I have so many beautiful journals and notebooks that I have written in, both cheap and expensive. It's lovely to think that someone in a hundred (a thousand even?) years may look on them as something of value, the way I see them.

P. M. Rodriguez said...

I think it almost certain that if they survive a thousand years they will be valued. If a thousand year old shoe is a relic. . . I do not know if there are any thousand year old notebooks. I am sure that there are none in the West; but it is possible, I suppose, that some exist in China. The thought is almost unbearable—such a victory over Death and Time.

Laura said...

I've kept a journal since I was 9 years old and I can say with certainty that it is the reason why I want to study document preservation in grad school.

P. M. Rodriguez said...

Good luck: a noble vocation, nobly entered into.

Diorissi said...

Sitting here, reading your post, I have in the pocket of my denim shorts, two loose leaves I almost threw away to clear the house, hastily at the arrival of guests. I will slot them in a notebook now.

But tell me, why do we sometimes falter in our notebooks? Why sometimes does it seem wrong to add new moments to a book that has acquired its own mood and personality - uncaptured sense of an era recently passed? I have so many unfinished notebooks in this state. I’d love to know what you think; an excuse to hear more of a wonderful writerly voice…

P. M. Rodriguez said...

Besides very few that proved to be inappropriate for their purpose, or fell apart in midstream, I have never left a notebook unfinished. But reading some of my oldest notebooks, I do feel that the passage of time has made me my own posterity. Now and then I add some indexing marks to them—but even where something could be interestingly annotated, I cannot bring myself to add any words. What business, after all, does a man have among a boy's thoughts, even his own? But now that I think of them, some notebooks from not too long ago are just as unsympathetic. Even for the recent past, I find that it is uncomfortably different to remember a time, and to read what I actually wrote then. Memory alone shows me my life, and my self, with a continuity it did not have: my past is full of strangers, whom I only know through their notebooks.

Diorissi said...

Yes - I would have to annotate them from so many vantage points that, Rashomon-style, the original writing would be lost! And your words chime well with my feelings that the recent past can have too much detail in it. Details disrupt the larger currents of memory, make them roil, rather than sweep on.

I love too your sense of a past full of strangers known only by their notebooks - like identities too wedded to a time/place to have more general currency - yet. Because, as your entry on decluttering acknowledges, we can't know what of us will acquire relevance and vigour in the future.

Fab response - thanks.

P. M. Rodriguez said...

Think rather of sand than of water--sand flows only in bulk.

I've never been called fab before. Thanks for the dialectical novelty.

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