Life as a notebook

Life as a notebook

A small notebook that was my father’s came to me after his death. It measured three by five inches, was made of black leather, and had six tiny yet strong rings for holding the paper –  the clasp that set and unset the rings was brass colored, and it must have been well made because it never failed through many openings and closings, and was already well used when it came to me. The little black book had lined paper, and there must be a number of refill packets already in our house, because I don’t recall buying new paper for it. When I first looked in the little black book for the first time I found no mysterious phone numbers of kept mistresses, no Swiss bank account passwords, no coded nuclear top secrets that had defined much of his military career.

My use of the notebook was also not exotic. I wrote down homework assignments starting in elementary school, in high school maybe the phone number of a girl from the nearby public high school (there were no girls at my school), and outside of school I kept at least one journal in it: notes about a road trip with two buddies to Siesta Key, Florida.  Yet the little black book was more than a place to write things down – it was an accessory and a prop for a young teenager trying to look cool: after making some note in it, I’d slip it into my inside jacket pocket (coats and ties were required attire) with what I thought, desperately hoped, was a bit of panache. The only other two suitable props for panache were cigarettes and martinis, the first not my preference and the second a number of years in the future. But the effect was probably more Mr. Bean than James Bond.

I don’t think the little black book lasted beyond high school graduation: I kept a journal of my first trip to Europe in a small notebook but I am not sure which one; the pages from the trip to Europe are either in storage or are forever gone. I do have with me here in France the pages of a journal of a later trip, my first trip to Wyoming, but looking at the slightly larger paper size I realize that this journal must have come from a vinyl replacement notebook after the little leather book finally disintegrated.

My mother used notebooks to write things down, but she favored accounting style ledger notebooks, perhaps because her father had been an accountant.  She kept journals for each child (there were and still are three of us), at least one was used as a cookbook. Into one of those my father had written a recipe for a particular punch – see the image gallery below.

Carnet, cahier, and livret

Writing things down in the traditional manner, pen or pencil to paper, may be becoming a thing of the past, but in France notebooks are still a key part of every day life, and not just for school. Upon birth all children, or rather their parent(s), are given a carnet de sante, a notebook that is used to record all relevant health information: height and weight at birth, then at various intervals; doctor’s visits; immunizations; and in the back of the carnet de sante there’s even a chart of the teeth (examne bucco-dentaire, or examinations of oral teeth – my translation), and fields for recording the conditions observed. The carnet is to be used until the child is eighteen years old.

Another notebook in France is the livret  de famille, which is sort of a folder for documenting marriages, births, and deaths, although I’m not sure if certificates for these events are stored in the livret de famille, or just the event is logged. It’s not clear what happens to the livret de famille in the case of a single parent, a divorce, an adoption, or a same sex couple having children.

This year in school Catherine has at least six notebooks: one for each subject, another one for administrative items, and one more that is used for daily work, across all subjects. Having a bit of an office supply and stationary fetish, I think this is all fine, as soon enough too much of her work will be done onscreen. In any case, early in the school year I was intrigued and pleased when leafing through her daily notebook to come across pages with blue ink and red underlining – it reminded me of something.

In the ninth grade I landed in Jim Osuna’s world history class. Although I already had studied under more than my fair share of good and great teachers, and would also have the same good luck for the rest of high school and into college, if I had to pick just one teacher and one class that stands out in my memory, it would be this one: Jim Osuna taught us not only a system for learning, but he also covered a volume and variety of material that was stunning: the history itself, of course, but also there were theories about history, lectures about historians, and extensive coverage of ancillary fields – see the remarkable C14 drawing in the gallery below. It was hard and exhausting and wonderful, even then. What made Jim Osuna’s history class so memorable and useful was not only the teacher himself but also his vision of one of the keys to intellectual success:  the onerous and amazing notebook. THE NOTEBOOK.  If information is the foundation of knowledge and knowledge is a prerequisite to wisdom, then each student’s notebook, according to the gospel of Osuna, was the method for capturing and organizing all that information. The quality of the notebook was a key part of your grade, at least twenty percent, and notebooks not conforming to the Notebook Order had to be rewritten. At times Teacher Osuna would dictate directly to use what to write down, and we were expected to capture everything word for word. We could expect to hear “Write that down!” at least three times in each class. Notebooks were checked daily and weekly, and sometimes entire classes were given over to just working on the notebook.

What was curious about being in this particular history class was at that time my school was already sorting students by grades, and the students with the higher grade point average were assigned to another world history teacher, let’s call him Teacher X, about whom, it must be said, something had gone really wrong, although on the outside he looked mostly normal. Teacher X was a kindred spirit to Chauncey Gardiner, but apparently still employable, and I wondered what, if anything, his students learned. Those of us with more normal grade point averages certainly got the better teacher.

  Notebooks and journals, booklets and paper

My junior year I took another class from Jim Osuna, this time it was modern European history. I suppose the notebook order was the same as for the world history class, but if so, it was less a shock after my first experience as a freshman. After high school I used the systems I had learned to varying degrees, and I’m afraid never to the level of detail and consistency as I had during that freshman year. While in Germany studying I had various notebooks, but the one that survived (or at least I found in while back in the United States last August) was the student notebooks, with mostly administrative items, from the Universität Heidelberg. As I leafed through it recently, I found in the back all the certificates, ein Schein, which each professor gave me after semester’s end to certify I had taken his or her course. Invariably, in the course of filling our each Schein, every professor asked me what grade he should give me – what to do? Last, taped in the back of one of my journals from those days was the booklet that captured my Interrail travels while on the winter holiday – Helsinki in February was cold, and at the other end of the rail line Rabat was not warm enough, at least in late February or early March.

In my works and days in Silicon Valley I sometimes kept a notebook for tracking meeting notes, ideas, and other marginalia of software development projects. What intrigued me over the years and across various companies was the how astonished some people were about the novelty and benefit of writing things down, especially developers (“uh, why do I need to write a spec? The code is the spec…”), but usually after a while most saw the benefit. In time at most companies the writing down of things moved completely online, and at one company things got out of hand: with the understanding that no one documentation system is perfect, there is a benefit to standardizing on something, on one thing. Nonetheless somehow Company X ended up deploying not on one, not on two, but three different environments for documenting its software and systems: a wiki (I don’t remember the flavor), Google Docs, and the BaseCamp environment from 37signals. The notion of islands of information doesn’t just apply to poor database design.

I’ve kept my share of journals – the older ones are in storage in the United States, and the newer ones are here in France. The journals are of various brands from stores in California, Canada, and Europe. One of my favorites is a small yellow notebook I found in Berlin a few years ago: it’s in a cardboard sleeve, with a pencil inside then the notebook (with blank pages) itself. I found a replacement last year when we were in Heidelberg, although this one had grid lined pages. Like used bookstores, when travelling I’m on the lookout for stationary stores, and go into them to see what line of paper products are sold. I’m also on the lookout for various pens, pencils, clips and other attaching devices, and a particular type of pencil sharpener that was mounted on the wall in the basement of our home when I was young: I think it was a Boston brand, and I remember when I removed the cover to empty the shavings, there was a dark cyclops hole where the pencil goes surrounded by the miniature industrial grinding blades flecked with bits of ground Venus Velvets and Ticonderogas, and the grinding blades reminded me of that Stephen King short story Chattery Teeth, about a pair of oversize, metal wind-up walking teeth.

My journals are a hodgepodge: tickets from art museums and a few photos are pasted in, there are lists of things to do, notes about the day, and the occasional piece of literary pretension – think Winona Ryder in BeetlejuiceMy favorite might be a journal I exchanged with my mother during the last six years of her life: she would keep it and write into it for a few months, then send it off to me, and I’d keep it for a while and do the same. In the course of writing this article I searched around for a quote I had read recently. The quote was in one of the articles I came across probably on ALDaily, a crack cocaine of a web sites that sucks all time, and the article was probably by or pertaining to Sherry Turkle,  about handwriting or screen reading or printed books or similar. The quote mentioned a person who maintained a series of journals, real ones, as a record and symbol of her life. I’ve been unable to locate the quote, but the sentiment remains: what are the archives of a life? It used to be letters, photographs, journals, cards, and so on, but today it’s digital ephemera. So despite my wretched handwriting, there’s a satisfaction in writing things down, and over time the accumulation of a past in a tangible format.

The little black book from my father disintegrated and disappeared many years ago, but I got another one. A number of year ago during a visit to the East at Christmas, some mash up of Elders, Dickinsons, and their entourages were wandering around Washington, D.C. During a break in the action my keen eyed sister spotted something in a leather store in Georgetown, disappeared for a few minutes, and emerged with a new, now used little black book. Now for just a bit of panache….

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