Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Summer is here, and this means things are moving at a different beat. Helping to set the tempo, my friend Ted who posts at Bad Education, gave me a few books to read. The one I’ve spent the most time with so far is Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a wonderful collection of essays from the mid 1960’s. At first glance her writing style seems to put less weight on the macro-argument & instead invites the reader to indulge in the subtleties and texture of the situation she is illustrating. When you observe how gently Didion weaves together (seemingly disparate) memories and situations into the narrative of her argument, there is a sense that while the subject matter she is addressing is not intended to be read as a metaphor it still hints at something more illusive… a subtext of sorts. Didion says it best herself, in her essay On Keeping a Notebook, where she reflects on the gesture of keeping a personal journal/notebook.

“I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check, counter in Pavillon; in fact I suspect that the line “That’s’ my old football number” touched not my own imagination at all, but merely some memory of something once read, probably “The Eighty-Yard Run.” Nor is my concern with a woman in a dirty crepe-de-Chine wrapper in a Wilmington bar. My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.
It is a difficult point to admit. We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. (“You’re the least important person in the room and don’t forget it,” Jessica Mitford’s governess would hiss in her ear on the advent of any social occasion; I copied that into my notebook because it is only recently that I have been able to enter a room without hearing some such phrase in my inner ear.) Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.
And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.” We are not talking here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consumption, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensees; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with
meaning only for its maker.”

I have kept a notebook for many years, I started as a child, but in college I began to keep one religiously. I have found that over the last couple of years my notebooks are lasting me longer and longer, I credit this to uploading more and more of my notes directly to the computer. I thinking blogging is an interesting exercise in relation to how Didion talks about the legibility of meaning. For instance while this blog is definitely more public then say my notebook is, I think its meaning (not to be mistaken with the meaning of a single post) can still only be understood by its maker… but this leads to a much longer discussion of the dynamics of authorship and readership and how the two are intimately connected.

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