In yesterday’s mail I received the UK edition of Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I’d ordered online after Steve had mentioned the book on his blog. Masters wrote A Life Discarded after friends gave him a stack of 148 diaries they’d found in a trash bin, and the book recounts his attempt to reconstruct the life of the person who wrote and then discarded the volumes.
Keeping a journal is an immensely personal endeavor, but it is also an inherently egotistical one. You have to be a little bit crazy to think your life is worthy of a faithful day-to-day record. Even if you don’t plan on inflicting your thoughts on an unsuspecting public, as bloggers regularly do, when you set pen to page you make an implicit assumption that your thoughts–your mundane life and the things you believed and felt during that life–are worth jotting down for future reference.
There is, in other words, a hint of egomania in journal-keeping–a step or two beyond merely talking to oneself. And there is a complementary kind of craziness in the urge to read someone else’s journals: the friends of Masters who retrieve the notebooks are more than a little nuts in their belief that a life recorded and then discarded is worth diving into a dumpster to examine.
I’ve read only the first few pages of Masters’ book, but I’m already sucked and suckered into the mystery. What kind of person faithfully records the mental minutia of their life only to toss that record into the trash? This impulse to record–to scribble down inane thoughts into notebooks that are then carefully numbered and shelved–is obviously one I share, which is why I was eager to buy a UK edition of Masters book, which doesn’t come out here in the States until October. There is something both crazy and compulsive about journal-keeping: it’s an obsession that is but steps away from collecting old newspapers and stockpiling empty tin cans. (Surely it is no accident that the name of my blog contains the word “hoard.”)
But one person’s insanity is another’s art, and I am grateful that the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, and May Sarton all decided to trust their thoughts as well as their days to the page. When great men and women keep diaries, it is the stuff of history, but when the rest of us do it, there is a hint of pathology: egotism, error, or worse.
Part of what attracts me to the story behind Masters’ book are the layers of obsessive behavior it describes. A nameless woman is obsessive enough to chronicle five decades of her life, strangers are obsessive enough to retrieve her diaries out of the trash, and Masters is obsessive enough to read, research, and write a book about the whole story: obsession stacked upon obsession.
If a stranger were to happen upon the shelves of filled Moleskine notebooks I have dating from 2002 to the present, what would they discover about me? They’d learn my mind often falls into the same predictable ruts, with page after page recounting mundane chores and errands, the litany of an ordinary life. They’d see moments of observational brilliance interspersed with whines about the weather and a catalogue of aches and pains. They’d find, in other words, the kind of stuff pretty much any of us have rattling around in our heads: hopes and disappointments, resolutions and regrets, faults and failures. They’d find nothing at all remarkable, just random bits that are noteworthy only because they are captured and contained.
A journal is like a fossil, preserving one creature at a single moment in time. Pressed between the pages of a journal, you’ll find the faded flowers of someone else’s life, preserved. The journals tossed into a dumpster in Cambridge, England were discarded and then saved, the life they chronicle frozen into prose like a fly in amber.
The first and third photos illustrating today’s post show yesterday’s journal pages, where I wrote a first draft of this post. The second photo shows part of the shelf where I keep my filled Moleskine notebooks.