I wrote this essay about a year ago for a closed audience of fellow amateur bloggers. I rediscovered it last week and thought I’d polish it up to celebrate my move to WordPress. Enjoy, and feedback is welcome! – p.w.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve developed a healthy scribbling habit. Scribbling is a term I borrow from William Carlos Williams, who wrote that “Isolation…permits a fair interval for thought. That is, what I call thinking, which is mainly scribbling. It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfactions.” The isolation he’s referring to Williams fashioned for himself by settling in Rutherford, New Jersey instead of a more trafficked metropolis. But whereas isolation enabled his scribbling, for me, it is in scribbling that I have been able to fashion a comfortable isolation, which is hard to come by these days, when one has at all-hours instantaneous access to a world of digitally mediated people and their addictive, quotidian news. By continually scribbling I’ve found a place to vent my spleen where no one but me is privy. It fits in my pocket, it has an elastic strap to keep its covers neatly bound, and it doesn’t ever ring.
Sadly notebooks, like all pocket-sized possessions with a modicum of personal value, have a way of getting lost. And when that happens, one can’t help but imagine that anyone in the world might be reading one’s private ramblings. Or (worse?) no one in the world might be reading them. When Pezzettino disappeared on March 6, 2011 (I name my notebooks for reference purposes), I grieved for lost reading lists, notes, casual observations, ideas, and hilarious doodles. But it also made me think, a lot, about the boundaries between writing and reading, and the nature of forms and methods (e-book, codex, handwriting, typing) and how we use them.
I was shelving my way through a regular Sunday afternoon shift at BookCulture, where I was in the habit of noting down titles that interested me. I distinctly remember the last time I made such a note in Pezzettino: I was in the Cinema section, though I can’t remember what the book was. Later on in a different section, perhaps Philosophy, I reached for my pocket thinking to jot down another title or author, and the notebook wasn’t there. “Perhaps it’s time for a technology upgrade,” my boss sneered at me when I told him I’d lost my personal notebook somewhere in the store. I put a note on the shift clock to alert my coworkers, describing the lost notebook and the sticker on its cover, which featured a black and white drawing of an accordionness with the legend PEZZETTINO, hence the notebook’s name.
A month later I got laid off (hard times in the book business, yes, we know) and the notebook hadn’t turned up. There are countless things I had written in it which I recall in abstract but not in particular and I do wish I had typed them up at some point. On several occasions I had transferred from notebook to screen a few scrawled lines that felt worthy of being taken to the next level, whatever that is; but, in almost every case, whatever spark had inspired me was instantly extinguished upon typing. As became clear, my greatest pleasure was in the physicality of the scrawl and the crossing-out, the motion of the subway car recorded forever in the wobbly letters. Reading your own scrawl you can remember the discomfort of the train’s hard seat-back as you wrote, the smell of the homeless man nearby, the sound of the buskers on the platform. Typing it up, you lose these rich sensory associations and have to confront the weakness of your writing itself. So, usually, I let my scribbles remain just that.
Working in an independent bookstore, one is particularly exposed to opinions as to the advantages and disadvantages of new forms of reading (for example, e-readers) over traditional ones (the bound-paper codex). One particularly indignant senior citizen shopping in BookCulture one afternoon exclaimed that she could not understand why anyone would want to read a book on a screen. “There’s something about the feeling of turning pages,” she said, “I don’t want to say orgasmic, but….”
The physical form of the thing does make and always has made a difference. In The Case for Books, a fine collection of essays I was reading right around the time Pezzettino disappeared, Robert Darnton refers to the invention of the codex in Medieval Europe as the cause of a radical transformation in the way human beings interacted with texts, which before the codex existed primarily as scrolls. The page is a distinct unit of meaning. When reading a codex, unless radically alter its physical form by disassembling the signatures and spreading out the leaves before you, you cannot possibly experience more than the two-page spread at once. In order to look at more text, you have to simultaneously look at less. This tension between recto and verso is felt as the suspense of turning pages. In e-readers, pages are no longer a fixed quantity. Since font sizes are adjustable (certainly an advantage to one’s personal reading comfort), two people reading the same book might turn “pages” at very different rates even if they read at the same speed.
A notebook, too, is a codex, and even its blank pages are units of meaning, if only potentially so. When I turn to a new page while scribbling, even if I’m mid-sentence in a flurry of philosophy or private vituperation, I pause, hesitant to blot this clean white field with my ongoing and constantly frustrating attempt at articulation. Then I summon my courage and blot away.
To write in an “e-notebook,” say, to type on a smartphone or tablet, would be an altogether different activity from scribbling. (I currently own neither smartphone nor tablet, so I can only speak here hypothetically.) When writing with pen or pencil, emphasis can be achieved by gesture; it is a far more bodily expressive way of writing than typing can ever be. Furthermore, it is technologically far simpler and more convenient. To return to Darnton, he likewise points out the convenience of the codex as a technology: no need to charge its batteries, it’s extremely durable, and it doesn’t require system updates.
But this is not to argue against e-books: quite the contrary. Darnton merely acknowledges the differences between these technologies, including their different uses. He suggests that the e-book may offer a viable solution for the ailing academic publishing industry, by proposing a model of academic e-book that is a multimedia “pyramid” of deepening layers of text, notes, illustrations, documentary materials, et cetera, organized by a system of hyperlinks. According to this Jan. 4 interview with Darnton–which I recommend for further reading on these and related issues–a few publishers have now released such pyramid-structured e-books, including editions of The Waste Land and On the Road with a variety of such appendix material. As the President of Harvard University’s Library system, Darnton is one for whom understanding the history and future of books as information technology is of utmost importance. As his essays demonstrate, new forms of reading merely force us to ask again what reading is, and to appreciate that different forms of reading may suit different purposes.
So, too, I ask what scribbling is. As I mentioned before, one of my first thoughts was “Anyone might be out there reading my personal rants and notions!” And, hopefully, “Will they have the humanity to send the notebook back to me?” (Which had actually happened before–a man named Arnold once called and said he’d found a notebook of mine before I’d even noticed it was missing.) And, somewhat wistfully, “Why do I care? They were just casual notes, barely coherent at best.” And, with despair, “What will they think of me?” And then, philosophically, “Who did I write them for in the first place?” Ultimately I had to make a hypothesis. What does it mean, “to write?”–I think that to write is to intend, assume, and desire that there will be at least one reader. Or, where X is a piece of writing, To write X is to intend, assume, and desire that X will be read by at least one person.
First, I intend these writings for a reader, even if it’s just myself. I’ll write down a thought so that I can see how it looks on the page. In more frankly communicative cases one calls the intended reader the audience, the addressee. Second, I assume a reader because I must, or I would never begin writing. In any case, there already is a reader: me. I’m reading this as I write it. Right?
That doesn’t quite work, because my desire for a reader is not satisfied by the reader in myself. Those who make of writing a way of life will probably understand this. I mean beyond the pedestrian “making a living”—obviously, one would have a hard time getting paid for writings that have no audience but oneself. I mean writing as a way of understanding and enjoying life and its puzzles and pleasures. Furthermore, as Anne Carson succinctly puts it in her brilliant book on ancient Greek love poetry, Eros the Bittersweet, desire is lack: if we feel that we desire a reader, we must not yet have one, or else we are unsatisfied with the one(s) we do have.
So if all writing stems in part from a desire that it be read by someone not ourselves, then all writing is, on some level, correspondence, aimed at sharing something–a thought, an experience–with another person. But what does that make my notebook? Who is it a correspondence with? The me that is not myself? A future me? A memory me? If someone does send me back my lost notebook in an envelope with my address on it, does that make me the addressee of my own writings? If so, is the sender implicated, does he in some way become their author? I have been told that this last is a stretch. Point is, I write in these notebooks every day for the sheer and frustrating pleasure of it, and I must admit that most of the time I don’t really know what I am doing.
A parting thought: “Fuck them is what I say. I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I will be dead. I won’t give a shit.” – Maurice Sendak. (He will be missed. More of his finer statements here.)
Cartoon: The New Yorker, May 7, 2012