I am a notebook junkie. I have the soft leather-back for particularly creative ideas, the hardback, unbound, hand-stitched one with an eccentric illustration on the cover for note-taking, a pocket-sized carnet for meandering reflections, a plain, large copybook to whip out for my seven-year-old daughter to draw in during our sojourns in cafés, and a particularly unimaginative notepad for accounts. These travel with me in my handbag wherever I go. But I am particularly taken with the writer’s notebook.

photoEvery time I read the following sentence from Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, I feel satisfaction of a rare kind: “She picks up the notebook that lies on the small table beside his bed... a copy of TheHistories by Herodotus that he has added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in his own observations—so they are all cradled within the text of Herodotus."

Running an indie publishing house and book store, I often spend my afternoons with aspiring writers who drop by, and I want to know how keenly they write in their notebooks. One could say like the camera is to the photographer, so the notebook is to the writer, but that would be banal. The writer’s notebook refers to more than just the form of the notebook—it is a way of being. It is a choice one makes to whip out, or slip out quietly, a notebook that one carries around to record thoughts, things overheard, random information, notes from books or the Internet. Indeed, one might never be a published writer and yet choose to live like this.

photoThe form does matter, of course. Writers are inexplicably attached to a precise kind of notebook, without which they might be threatened with a visitation of the dreaded writer’s block. Gertrude Stein, for instance, was partial to tiny perforated notepads, 2x3.5 inches in size, placed in a cardboard holder into which replacement pads could be slipped when the previous one got over. Bruce Chatwin wrote lovingly of his “black, oilcloth-covered notebook, its pages held in place with an elastic band". Chatwin would buy his carnets from a papeterie on Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie in Paris. The pages of his preferred notebook were squared. Chatwin had numbered his “Paris notebooks" in series, put his name and address on top, and offered a reward to the finder in case they were lost. He wrote, “To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe."

photoThe most well-known might be William Somerset Maugham’s A Writer’s Notebook, one of the first non-fiction books I read as a teenager. The novelist William Boyd wrote of it, “Ostensibly a distillation of his diary, kept over some 50 years, it was more interesting to the aspiring novelist for the gnomic advice Maugham offered on the craft of writing."

In these fragmentary notes, sketches, journals, observations, reflections and experiments, the writer captures and explores the smells, sounds, thoughts and nuances through which she later rummages to people her narrative. In doing so, these notebooks reveal the writer in myriad ways to the reader. At times, the veil is lifted with embarrassing results. Stein, for instance, most certainly did not intend for her voluminous notes on pads, loose leaves, school copybooks and large and small notebooks to be made public, borne out by the bits where she talks about giving “cows" (interpreted later by critics as orgasms) to her lover Alice Toklas, which enabled Stein to produce “babies", that is, books or writing.

photoLike most writers’ notebooks, Stein’s are also a meditation upon writing. So are the notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (another favourite of mine), now almost all published. The published notebooks boast of over 2,000 entries, meticulously alphabetized into 23 categories such as “Conversation and Things Overheard", a section filled with notable comments like “Showing off; Well, then, so was Christ showing off". While much of the material would be inspirational reading for young writers, there is considerable entertainment to be had as well—as from his impromptu verses:

“Every time I blow my nose I think of you

And the mellow noise it makes

Says I’ll be true"

Or for lines which might never have seen the light of day in any published work:

“She first discovered love in her throat."

In his notebooks, Fitzgerald sheds light on his particularly close yet fraught relationship with Ernest Hemingway. He notes in one instance that For Whom the Bell Tolls is a “thoroughly superficial book with all the profundity of Rebecca". Never a fan of Hemingway’s writing, I am still seduced by A Moveable Feast, possibly because this wonderful work, described by a critic once as a masterpiece of malice, is a stunningly woven together compendium of sketches of people and events which I can easily imagine Hemingway scrawling in his notebook at the famous Parisian café La Coupole.

photoThe editor of the published notebooks of George Eliot, William Baker, writes in his introduction to Some George Eliot Notebooks: “The privilege of watching the ‘simmering’ towards yet another important work comprises only one of the benefits conferred by a reading of the notebooks of a great novelist." Nowhere is such simmering more evident than in Eliot’s Partridge And Cooper’s Patent Improved Metallic Book, which contains extracts from the works of poets, playwrights, philosophers, literary critics and historians in preparation for her magnum opus Middlemarch. As a matter of fact, Stein’s notebook and Eliot’s discredit the attempt by the dubiously named Artofmanliness.com to discuss the “manly" tradition of keeping pocket notebooks. Some process of gendering seems to have been at work, though, going by the sheer number of “notebooks" for men, as against the more romantic, fluid and intensely private world of “journals" for women.

It’s no surprise then that the notebook figures repeatedly in many literary works, sometimes as a means of plain documentation, at others as an emblem of unexpressed desires or suppressed memories. In The English Patient, the book itself becomes the notebook as the chief protagonist adds to it even as he accumulates life experiences. In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, it is a reservoir of multiple selves. And in Possession, A.S. Byatt uses it to reveal as much as to hide dark secrets.

A recent email apprised me of a rare treat for stalkers of writers’ notebooks: The publication of the second volume of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, which contain intimate reflections on her artistic and political development during a trip to Hanoi at the peak of the Vietnam war and throughout her film-making years in Sweden before the dawn of the Reagan era. A review describes it as “an extraordinary look at the inner world of a genius, oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible". I can hardly wait.

New Delhi-based Arpita Das owns an indie publishing house, Yoda Press, and an indie book store, Yodakin.

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