One day when I was in the fourth grade, I got in trouble for not paying attention in class. I was scribbling away on my tablet, writing notes that had nothing to do with what my teacher was talking about. She said I was daydreaming. She said I had to go sit in the hallway. I narrowly avoided a visit to the principal’s office.
Writing in a notebook has been part of me for as long as I can remember. In my notebooks, I write interesting words or phrases, the title of a good book recommendation, the date of the next book club meeting, words of a song that sound like poetry.
At some point, I type the notes from my notebooks into my computer so they’re easy to search. I know that in this electronic age, many people type everything on their digital devices, but I don’t enjoy typing with one finger. Mostly I just enjoy the act of writing with pen in hand. And it gives me a good excuse to buy more notebooks.
Little did I know, with all my scribblings, I was creating a “waste book” in the tradition of 18th century German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, who had a habit of collecting aphoristic notes, ideas, and lists. According to a Scientific American review on Amazon.com, in his student days, Lichtenberg began the lifelong practice of recording his observations and reminders in notebooks that he called “Sudelbücher” after the waste books that English businesses used to enter transactions temporarily until they could be recorded in formal account books.
This is one of my favorite of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms: “The book which most deserved to be banned would be a catalog of banned books.” Lichtenberg’s writings have been translated in The Waste Books.
My waste books might seem a morass of random scribblings to some people, but when I look back at them, I find a gem here and there — an idea that may find it’s way into a story, the root of an essay, or a character waiting to be born.
For another take on keeping a notebook, read my previous post, A twist on the writer’s journal: The commonplace book.