The Best of New Writing on the Web

January 1, 2008


Filed under: Essay,Writing — litlove @ 12:01 pm

From The Ruricolist

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.



  1. Love the conclusion! I often wonder why I keep a notebook, now I know. Thank you.

    Comment by Stefanie — January 1, 2008 @ 3:24 pm | Reply

  2. 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…

    Comment by Diorissi — January 2, 2008 @ 11:45 pm | Reply

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