Three Journals

Oct. 22, 1837 "What are you doing now?" he asked. "Do you keep a journal?" So I make my first entry to-day.

-- Henry David Thoreau (first entry)

June 1897

"I am a realist bothered by reality."

-- Jules Renard

"If you'd told me last Monday that my weekend would end eating the best rhubarb pie ever at an off-season ski lodge on top of a mountain in Arizona, discussing a paranoid schizophrenic's comments on Chernoble during the chanting at a Buddhist funeral, I'd say: glad life is so surprising."

-- My facebook page, August 30, 2010


This morning I woke up and read other people's journals. The New York Review of Books has recently abridged and published Thoreau's day-to-day record of nature's minutiae; I also have with me The Journal of Jules Renard, a French fin-de-siecle diary of the inner life of one now-forgotten writer. Both journals can be read almost like reference tomes; open to a single page and find something out of context that somehow provides context for the moment you are in right now. Here, I'll do it. (No cheating, I promise):

"I find some advantage in describing the experience of a day on the day following. At this distance it is more ideal, like the landscape seen with the head inverted, or reflections in water." -- Thoreau, April 20th 1854

I used to shelve books in the reference section of the library at Skidmore College, and I took a rich pleasure in opening the works at random and learning something strange. One book was a taxonomy of sea creatures, one the DSM-IV full of psychiatric diagnoses. Sometimes I would steal a second to discover the population of Guatemala. Reading other people's diaries replicates that experience. When you shut the book, or turn the page, most of the time the information vanishes right out of your head, but you had a glimpse of something true. These things feel beautiful to me when I see them isolated on the page and they feel beautiful when, mid-conversation, I try to chase them down in my memory. What was that thing I read somewhere?

Journals, as a habit, have morphed so completely that we do not recognize them. I'm of the opinion that we are seeing a resurgence of journals, diaries, and note-passing in the form of facebook and twitter. And yet we largely hate these things, see them as dumb and a waste of time (even those of us who are engaged with them every day). I have heard people say so many times, "I don't care about every little thought you have." Well, I do. I love John Smith's diaries, and Thoreau's, and Anne Frank's, and slave narratives, and Mark Twain's letters. I love my facebook page, which I just clicked back through as far as it would let me go (June 3, 2010-- "I just got recognized in CVS!").

What we are not seeing right now is that we're living in the middle of the greatest documentation of daily life in history. The problem is, we don't think of it that way, and our digital journals smack of carelessness. I want to say to everyone: observe better. Reflect better. Conclude better. Write better.

But of course that isn't fair, or in any way effective. Because what Thoreau's random April quote reminds me  is that our digital journals are too immediate for us to really reflect on them. When I was a serious diary-writer (I went through a few very intense spurts in childhood and then a blowout recording of about 1,000 handwritten pages from age 17-18) I just about always leafed through the previous pages. I thought about what I'd promised myself before, what I had seen that I had forgotten. I heard my voice speaking seriously about a past I knew had become this present. When I wrote again, I had a larger sense of self and world in mind. I was in conversation with my sense of self. I do not do that any longer. I wish I could see my first few facebook statuses, see myself learning to use the technology, see myself choosing the online voice that now feels so ingrained. I wish I could see it all at once and edit it down to a story of myself, as paper diaries have been in the past.

I have an urge to conclude, but, this digital slice is also just one tiny entry in a reference book. So I will not. I will open up Jules Renard, at random:

"I am not content with intermittent life. I must have life at each instant."