For the last year or so I've been more-than-usually interested in the journals and notebooks of writers. The reason why, as they say, is overdetermined. My mildly embarrassing penchant for literary gossip. The elusive hope of discovering just how a writer did it. Watching the mind of someone I find fascinating at work. But the main reason—or at least the reason behind this particular surge—is due to wondering how certain writers processed and absorbed what they read and experienced, how they flagged poems or passages from a novel or that especially useful anecdote or conversation. If wide-reading and lived experience are what furnish the room of the mind, then a writer's notebooks might reveal how he arranged the furniture, or where he especially loved to sit.

I suspect my interests veered in this direction because, though still in my early 30s, I've felt a need to be more purposeful in my reading, and what I do with whatever "material" (literary or otherwise) might prove helpful for my own work. In my 20s I read with total promiscuity, and was haphazard in taking notes and keeping track of what I had experienced. Now I feel that my time is irrevocably limited in a way I didn't in the past. That I'll only read so many books, only write so many essays, only be able to remember so many lines of poetry or prose. Or maybe it's better to say that by the time I reached thirty, I had failed enough to know how easily ideas and projects and what you read slips away from you.

It was with some interest, then, that this short take from Dwight Garner about about reading Emily Dickinson—and about keeping a commonplace book—caught my attention. Here's the rather fetching main passage, though the whole entry deserves your attention:

I keep a commonplace book, a place where I write down passages that matter to me from the books I read. It’s packed with Dickinson, from her poems and her letters. These lines come to me, in my daily life, both in their intended contexts and quite far out of them. She explains why we read: “I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.” She underscores my sense of what it is like to watch cable news: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” She suggests what I am thinking when I order a Negroni: “Bring me the sunset in a cup.” She catches why gay marriage took so long: “The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.” Her sarcasm rings down the ages: “They say that ‘home is where the heart is.’ I think it is where the house is, and the adjacent buildings.”

Do Commonweal readers have similar anecdotes or enthusiasms? 

As for my own notebooks, I began keeping them in earnest early this spring. I had coffee with a novelist friend of mine, who introduced me to an old-school editor (and general literary-man-about-town). Most of the details aren't worth noting, but I should say I was doing some research about W.H. Auden, and the editor told me a number of absorbing anecdotes. During a follow-up email exchange, he asked me if I kept a notebook or diary, and rather forcefully told me I needed to start if I hadn't already. I read that as: "I told you something important. There aren't many of us left who know these stories. Please write this down." 

He was right, of course, and I remain grateful for the admonition.

(Photo by Justin Ackerman, used with his permission)

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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