A Forest of Notebooks

When it comes to keeping records, chances are good that you, or someone you know, has a friend or acquaintance who writes down everything. Joel is our in-house record keeper, and today’s post marks the tenth anniversary of a series of his notebooks. Here’s a mini-memoir he wrote about them:

I’ve been compulsively writing things down, at random, since I was several years shy of having just learned to write. The earliest notebook I remember keeping was a small, spiral-bound book with sections of paper dyed in 90’s-appropriate neons. The only thing I distinctly know I wrote was every house number on my street on Parallel Lane in Columbia, Maryland; for some reason it was relevant to my life to ride my bike, in fits and starts, down towards the cul-de-sac and back up in order to compile that list. I learned that there were 18 houses on my street, a fact that surprised me because it seemed too small a street to hold that many houses, but a far that was otherwise completely pointless.

I kept notes off and on through school, but not with any regularity until I went to Germany on a yearlong foreign exchange after high school. On a whim, I bought a little 3 x 5” Herlitz graph paper notebook and a Stabilo 88 pen, the kind most German schoolkids use, and began to take notes on September 28, 2002. Many of those early notebooks are filled with page after page of mostly copied-down passages from stupid books like Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and Steal This Book and cryptic definitions from the German encyclopedia in my host family’s living room, but there are also some interesting bits mixed in that give me hints of what I was doing at the time: German words I was learning, what I bought and how much it cost, sometimes jotted-down thoughts and observations of life around me.

A lot of it was pointless note-taking, like copying down the numbers to all 18 houses on my street. However, time gives pointless things meaning, and the fact that I remember counting houses on my street, and that I remember that number to this day, is as fascinating to me as seeing Winston Churchill’s toothbrush in a museum case. (I don’t know if it exists, but it would say something about Winston Churchill that we would even want to keep his dental maintenance habits in mind.) I write a lot more than pointless stuff now, including ideas for new projects, funny things people said, and I draw a lot in them, too. But in all honesty, over time, the mundane stuff will be just as important as the stuff with substance.

I will never stop random stuff in notebooks, for several reasons: I never know where inspiration is going to come from, I know that any combination of overlooked details can be synthesized into something new, and I know that to look at the world with curiosity is to be rich indeed. Lord willing, here’s to another 10 years of obsessive note-taking.

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