Roving thoughts and provocations

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Take Care of Your Little Notebook

Archives of American Art/Smithsonian Institution
Janice Lowry: to-do list, August 9, 2003, journal no 101. This notebook appeared in the exhibition “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations” at the Morgan Library.

Writing with a pen or pencil on a piece of paper is becoming an infrequent activity, even for those who were once taught the rigorous rules of penmanship in grade school and hardly saw a day go by without jotting down a telephone number or a list of food items to buy at the market on the way home, and for that purpose carried with them something to write with and something to write on. In an emergency, lacking pen or notebook, they might even approach a complete stranger to ask for assistance. For instance, on a cold January morning, I once asked a fashionably dressed middle-aged woman, standing outside a building on Madison Avenue smoking a cigarette and shivering, whether she had a pen I could use. She didn’t think this was an odd request and was happy to oblige me. After she extracted a pencil not much bigger than a matchstick from her purse, I took out a little notebook I carried in my pocket, and not trusting the reliability of my memory, wrote down some lines of poetry I had been mulling over for the previous hour, roaming the streets. Today, she’d probably be staring at an iPhone or a blackberry while puffing away on her cigarette and it would not cross my mind to bother her by asking for a pencil.

The kind of notebooks I’m describing are still available in stationery stores (the ones made by an outfit called Moleskine come in a variety of sizes and colors), so someone must still be scribbling in them—unless they are bought purely out of nostalgia for another time and remain unused now that they have so much competition. No question, one can use a smart phone as an aid to memory, and I do use one myself for that purpose. But I don’t find them a congenial repository for anything more complicated than reminding myself to pick up a pair of pants from the cleaners or make an appointment with the cat doctor. If one has the urge to write down a complete thought, a handsome notebook gives it more class. Even a scrap of paper and a stub of a pencil are more preferable for philosophizing than typing the same words down, since writing a word out, letter by letter, is a more self-conscious process and one more likely to inspire further revisions and elaborations of that thought.

The little notebooks are also very useful for copying or summarizing something one has read. Browsing one day in a library, I opened a book in the stacks and found a passage on 1830s France by Charles Fourier, the utopian French philosopher, in which he talks about the dishonesty of business transactions, the tedium and deceit of family life, the hardship of small farmers, the miseries of the poor and near-destitute in great cities, the evils of naked greed, the neglect of genius, the sufferings of children and old people, the stupidity of war, the coercive mechanisms of society disguised as law, morality and the benefits of civilization. Can you believe this? I thought to myself. Everything this man said one-hundred-and-eighty years ago is true about us today. I had no choice but to write it down, so I could prove to my friends that nothing ever changes.

Inevitably, anyone, including its owner, perusing through one of these notebooks years or even months later, is going to be puzzled or embarrassed by many of the entries, surprised by others he has forgotten (like a glorious meal in a restaurant for which he took the trouble to itemize the dishes and their ingredients), and impressed by an occasional striking passage, which, lacking the quotation marks, he is not sure whether to attribute to himself or to someone far cleverer, funnier and more articulate, whom he happened to be reading at the time. Who asked the question: Are there percentagewise more idiots in the world today than in the earlier ages of humanity? Who described a book as an autoerotic classic? Who said: Our blindness prevents us from seeing our madness? Who made the observation that all donkeys look sad? Spoke of poetry’s hideous imprisonment in language? Called the United Sates an empire in a search of a graveyard? Described someone as a eulogist of torture? Likened our political system to a bordello, where our elected officials parade naked before an audience of seated generals, fundamentalist preachers and bankers? Who said: The eye knows things the mouth cannot say?

I have no idea, though I suspect some of them are not mine. Or could they be? I won’t be losing any sleep about their authorship, since I have many other notebooks crowded with similarly mystifying entries, and I continue to fill out new ones, day and night—even while eating in some restaurant where the staff have become alarmed and far friendlier under the mistaken impression that I’m a restaurant critic hard at work and keep running up to my table with something special for me to taste from the chef. I very much hope these notebooks I see in stationery stores, card shops, and bookstores are serving similar purposes. Just think, if you preserve them, your grandchildren will be able to read your jewels of wisdom fifty years from now, which may prove exceedingly difficult, should you decide to confine them solely to a smart phone you purchased yesterday.

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