The Notebook

Is it a tool, a literary genre, or a nervous tic? Scott McLemee jots down some thoughts.

March 31, 2010

For a long while now I have planned to write an essay about the habit of keeping a notebook, and have even, from time to time, started to take notes on the topic. By now there have accumulated more passages hectoring myself to settle down to work on it than pages containing actual insights. It seems the project has a short circuit.

But it may be that this reflects a basic tension within the notebook itself, considered as a genre of writing. On the one hand, it is turned towards the outside world; it is absorptive and assimilative, a tool for recording information, ideas, impressions. On the other, it is the ideal venue for self-consciousness to run amok. Even when a notebook is integral to a specific project, the writing always seems to be lacking something. Thoughts remain unfinished or provisional. You are moving but you aren't there yet. This can be frustrating. But then a notebook can also be where you can dig in your heels -- summoning up the confidence, or the vital reserves of energy, needed to continue.

Sometimes the notebook provides escape from the work in progress, rather than contributing to it. This is not necessarily a matter of procrastination.

The best essay on the notebook as workshop is probably “On Intellectual Craftsmanship” by C. Wright Mills.(See this column on it.) But an important supplement comes from Elias Canetti, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. After spending decades on his idiosyncratic and sui generis work of scholarship Crowds and Power (1960), Canetti published a mordant essay on notebook-keeping called “Dialogue with the Cruel Partner.”

“One cannot avoid the fact,” he writes, “that a work being continued daily through the years may occasionally strike one as clumsy, hopeless, or belated. One loathes it, one feels besieged by it, it cuts off one’s breath. Suddenly, everything in the world seems more important, and one feels like a bungler... Every outside sound seems to come from a forbidden paradise; whereas every word one joins to the labor one has been continuing for so long, every such word, in its pliant adjustment, its servility, has the color of a banal and permitted hell.”

From such dark moods, the notebook offers a reprieve. When the writer “views himself as the slave of his goal, only one thing can help: he has to yield to the diversity of his faculties and promiscuously record whatever comes to his mind.... The same writer, normally keeping a strict discipline, briefly becomes the voluntary plaything of his chance ideas. He writes down things that he would never have expected in himself, that go against his background, his convictions, his modesty, his pride, and even his otherwise stubbornly defended truth.”

There is a third modality of the notebook habit – a matter of treating it, neither as the warehouse and workshop for a project nor as an escape from its demands, but as something like its own form of writing, imposing its own peculiar demands.

Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” is astute on how this third mode is a function of temperament: “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.” The fragments jotted down are “bits of the mind's string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its own maker.”

The resulting collages of stray data and random insights are a way to keep track of one’s earlier incarnations, the personalities adopted and left behind in the course of a lifetime. “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with people we used to be,” Didion writes, “whether we find them attractive company or not.”

As it happens, Canetti made much the same point. “The mechanisms one uses to make life easy are far too well-developed,” he writes. “First a man says, somewhat timidly: ‘I really couldn’t help it.’ And then, in the twinkling of an eye, the matter is forgotten. To escape this unworthiness, one ought to write the thing down, and then, much later, perhaps years later, when self-complacence is dripping out of all of one’s pores, when one least expects it, one is suddenly, and to one’s horror, confronted with it. ‘I was once capable of that, I did that.’ ”

On this account, then, notebooks are, in effect, an annex of the superego. My own notebooks play that role at times.They document opinions or enthusiasms that sometimes prove embarrassing, after a few years have passed. But they are also full of injunctions – usually to work harder, or to finish some project now gathering dust in one of the more workshop-like volumes, or to start studying X in a systematic fashion (and here’s the syllabus...).

Recently the text of Didion’s essay was posted at an online venue called The New Inquiry, which is something of a cross between a group blog and a salon (it sponsors face-to-face meetings in New York between readers and contributors) and seems to be in transition towards becoming a magazine. Its three founders are recent graduates of Columbia University and Barnard College.

The site itself is a kind of collective notebook. It made me wonder how the proprietors understood notebook-keeping – and whether digital technology influenced how they practiced it. My own habits are irremediably old-fashioned. A netbook is not a notebook, to my mind anyway, and I still do a lot of writing with pen in hand, even while exhorting myself to be more productive and efficient (a performative contradiction, if ever there were one). But being stuck in one’s own habits does not preempt curiosity about those of other people, so I asked the New Inquirists how they saw “notebooking.”

While she prefers to read from paper, Jennifer Bernstein, a New York-based writer, finds that reflecting on what she reads is another matter: “I often create a Word document in which to jot down the best ideas and quotations from a book. Then I end up reading commentary on the book and articles related to its theme, excerpts from which I also paste into the document, usually with my own thoughts. The document becomes a kind of mini-scrapbook, the record of my exploration of a concept (for example, one I did recently was conservatism in the 20th century). This isn’t a perfect method. It’s led to a proliferation of strangely titled documents on my hard drive that at some point I should probably sort through and systematize. On the other hand, the chaos reflects how my mind really works.”

Rachel Rosenfelt, a cultural critic living in Brooklyn, told me: “I've never been a paper-notebook keeper in the sense Didion means it. Or in most senses, really. When I moved out of my last apartment I unearthed a pocket notebook that I had bought years earlier to track my expenses. On the first page was written: ‘notebook- $3.14.’ That was the only entry.”

Instead, she uses whatever book she is reading as a recording surface. They end up “profaned,” as she puts it, “filled with unrelated scribblings in the front and back pages, marked up with underlines, stars and notes....The notes I take within the texts and margins of books work like a diary for me in that sense, and often have a second life online in the form of the ideas I formulate and write about on TNI and elsewhere.” One consequence is that Rosenfelt can never part with a book when she is done with it. After all, you don’t sell a diary.

The attitude of Mary Borkowski, an arts programmer for the Columbia University radio station WKCR, sounds closest to my own. “I'm a bit eccentric in that I rarely write anything initially on the computer,” she told me. “I compose most essays, letters, short stories, poems, even emails, in long hand and then transcribe them onto the screen. I do realize that writing in longhand is, well, time-consuming, but there is something about writing in longhand that is always more surreptitious, more crafty, almost silent -- the least painful way to wrench a thought from my mind.”

The exact format of “notebooking” matters less, Borkowski says, than the impulse to find “a canvas for the mind” – a place for “the spurts of thoughts and memes, blurps from the brain stems that have no order yet.” The notebook is “the outline before the outline.”

I sensed that The New Inquiry serves as a place to record (the preferred term now is “curate”) things its participants had read, and to gloss them if the spirit so moves. Jennifer Bernstein confirmed this: “I usually just post several cultural artifacts that I see as closely related, without comment (see this, for example). This format allows me to maintain the loose, associative connection between them (and to suggest that connection to others). Websites can accommodate all kinds of media, including audio and video, which allows juxtapositions that weren’t instinctive or even possible before.”

Besides “collective notebook-keeping in the form of group blogs,” Bernstein noted the potential of formats such as Google Documents, “where people can edit the very same text, or Wave, which supports all forms of media. Basic software innovations like Word’s Track Changes and Google Wave have multiplied the forms that commentary can take.”

But part of what I value about The New Inquiry is that its participants always seem at least somewhat ambivalent about the technologies they have grown up with – and this comes through in Mary Borkowski’s comments.

“We create tools for living,” she told me, “and they became objects that totally dominate us or we dominate them. Notebooking is then one of the last personal stands against the individual mind being dominated by outside forces, or having to 'think inside the box,' if you will. It's a 'secret,' 'private' outlet that used to exist in ledger or diary form but now, especially when we're so inundated by the busy-ness of technology, notebooking is a state of mind expressed in the time we are separated from our palm devices, or laptops, or phones. The notebooking state of mind comes up when we can think minus the chatter, when ideas clarify. Notebooking facilitates the spontaneity of creativity, thoughts that could occur at any moment, or random time -- the unaccounted for in our over-accounted for, micromanaged, lifehacking world. Notebooking is the place to process your thinking in a world that seems to only value the end product.”


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