What little I manage to put up here would never have come together at all if I didn’t keep a lot of notes. By long experimentation I’ve hit upon a combination of lists and journals that seems to complement the way I think. I guess I know this because I don’t find myself unable to locate something I know I have written or starting new lists only to forget about them, at least not as much as I used to. I don’t claim to have done anything very important with this, but once in a while I manage to gather up the threads of something I’ve been thinking about for a while and at least make myself think that my reading has not all been a waste of time. Considering the little vogue for affected confessions to the effect that nobody remembers what they read (see How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read), maybe this is an accomplishment. I’m not saying reading for pleasure or whatever is shameful, just that trying to remember what you read isn’t necessarily stupid.
Shakespeare, of course, has been over this (Sonnet 77):
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear, Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste; The vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear, And of this book this learning mayst thou taste: The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show, Of mouthed graves will give thee memory; Thou, by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know, Time’s thievish progress to eternity. Look what thy memory cannot contain; Commit to these waste blanks and thou shalt find Those children nursed, delivered from thy brain, To take a new acquaintance of thy mind. These offices, so oft as thou wilt look, Shall profit thee, and much enrich thy book.
A trifle compared to some of the other sonnets, yet formally perfect, memorable, and more than enough to make me wonder why I want to say anything else in praise of diaries and the like. (Not my observation, but it makes the most sense as a kind of occasional poem inscribed in a blank book that Shakespeare gave as a gift.)
I only just realized that the phrase “Look what thy memory cannot contain” can be read two ways. The more obvious, to me, is that the recipient should use the gift as a journal, to help himself remember. This is borne out by his going back and taking “new acquaintance” with what has been written. But “thy memory” is not just what you remember, what stays in your head; we also use it to mean what is remembered about you after you die. This interpretation has the advantage of cementing the connection between the book and what might have seemed to be a separate theme of the poem, namely wearing beauty and mouthed graves. In addition to pointing out the private advantage to one person of keeping a journal, it also points out the public advantage: there is much that the collective memory cannot contain and even the memory of beloved friends would be lost to time, but the book offers hope.
Loss and public benefit are both apposite to Thinking the Twentieth Century by the historians Tony Judt and Timothy Snyder. It was put together out of a series of conversations shortly before Judt’s untimely death in 2010. In each chapter, some aspect of Judt’s biography is drawn out into something wider. The two are mainly historians of Europe, so the book really focuses on World War II and communism, with excursions into the history of Zionism, liberalism, the war in Iraq, and so forth. It’s important stuff. Being mainly an intellectual history, a discussion of why people might have thought what they did and who was right and who was wrong, it seems only fitting that Judt talks about his life, schools, teachers, and colleagues. I was surprised by Judt’s apparent apology, at the end, for intruding in some way on history which ought to be written impersonally. He was being modest. I have no doubt that his reminiscences enrich the work.