Empty Notebooks




When I was about ten, my grandmother gave me a little white diary that had a lock and key. I was thrilled, mostly about the lock and key, not the actual diary. I read Nancy Drew books at the time, and locks and keys felt very private-detective-ish. But I don’t remember having any secrets that required high-security handling. In fact, I believe most of my entries related to how the day began: “Mush for breakfast” was common.


Mush: My Favorite Breakfast AND My Favorite Diary Entry

I never wrote about heartbreak, disappointment, or disillusionment, nor about what I wanted to be when I grew up (in charge of a doll-repair hospital) nor about being under- (or over-) appreciated (though does any 10-year-old feel over-appreciated?) As far as I recall, I had no secret crushes on anyone at that point nor did I want to rant or rave about how my sister, brother, friends, and parents treated me. Frustrated desires – diaries are good for those, but I didn’t long too much for things I didn’t have. I didn’t brood about being liked or disliked. It’s possible I was oblivious to a lot of things. Truth be told, I was happy as a clam; I didn’t have a clue what to write in a diary because my life, unlike Nancy Drew’s life, felt pleasant and ordinary. And I was fine with that. I abandoned my diary after approximately one month of entries re: eggs, toast, oatmeal, orange juice, etc.

That lack of a need for a private journal seems to have followed me into adulthood. I’ve never kept a journal – at least, not the kind of self-reflective journal that a lot of writers keep in order to sort through their feelings. Not that I don’t fall asleep reflecting on the day’s strange bits and pieces and my relationship to them. But I don’t feel a need (or is it just laziness?) to keep a record of those thoughts. If I try to puzzle my thoughts out, I usually do it while washing dishes. No wonder I rarely use my dishwasher….


Some bound, some stapled, some handmade by me, some berry-ed…all empty.

I do have lots of blank books which could be journals, but that’s only because I like blank books. Blank notebooks, too – cheap stapled ones, nothing fancy. Composition books, things like that. I seem to like blank paper in general. So full of possibilities! So pristine! I even collect notebooks when I’m traveling – buying them in stationary stores or school supply stores when I can find them. Here are two I found in Italy, one of them depicting quite a moment of discovery in the history of electricity (I think.)  Sadly, or not so sadly – I’m not sure which –  the notebooks are empty.


Though I don’t keep a journal, I do from time to time write down things I see or read which seem remarkable. A sign that said “Men Working in Trees” struck my fancy and made it into the little leather notebook I keep – I call it a “drift record,” that name taken from the idea of being a flaneur and drifting around the city, observing mostly people but also this, that and the other. Like interesting signs.

men working in trees

I named my blog after my drift record, so sometimes blog entries become a kind of journal (though ouch, no tactile pleasure, no lovely paper. Rather than keeping a record of my own thoughts, my real drift record serves to remind me that the world beyond me is a fascinating place. I often put scientific facts from The Smithsonian into my record – a couple of the latest being that it rains metal on Venus and that half of a river in Minnesota is missing. I keep a list of odd occurrences or sightings or facts that have nothing to do with secret thoughts. No lock and key necessary.


On the left, my drift record. On the right, a notebook (artwork by Julie Paschkis) where I jot titles of books to look for at the library. These two are not empty.

Empty notebooks. I keep buying them despite the fact I never fill them up. It’s a notebook addiction. Now I try to give the ones I buy to friends. I get some beauties from my friends, too; it’s one of the reasons we’re friends, I’m sure – a mutual love of little notebooks. When I go to Europe this spring, I’ll probably buy a few more – I’ll even pack a small notebook for recording where I stay, what I eat, what I see. That’s the plan. But chances are I’ll abandon it in the same way I abandoned my little white diary. I’ll be “in the moment” and I’ll forget my notebook. If I have a quick minute, I might write something – probably “farine d’avoine pour le petit déjeuner ” – mush for breakfast, Paris-style.

Paris Porridge

A Bowl of Oatmeal at Paris’s Bol Porridge Bar (10th Arrondissement)



11 responses to “Empty Notebooks

  1. I share the same addiction. Have plenty of them lying around the house, yet when I feel the need to write I use a computer. It still feels good to buy them, maybe because they are “full of possibilities.” =)

  2. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    I love your comment about the art of drifting – like a flaneur…that’s never a waste of time, and always amusing! I’ve noticed a recent development that disturbs me rather – people are becoming so addicted to their mobile phones, that the art of the flaneur is a dying art. Why bother noticing your fellow man, when with your eyes glued to the screen in your palm, you can check the cricket scores or play some pointless computer game? Was this technology invented by men so they don’t have to talk to their wives?!
    I suppose the art of elegant handwriting is also regarded as quaint and obsolete by these techno-addicts. People see me writing in my leather journal – with a lovely fountain pen – and stare at me in disbelief, as if I were chiseling into a stone tablet, as they did in ancient Egypt!
    I’m not about to run away in despair and join the Amish, (although I have been tempted!) but I might warm more to this invasion of technology, if only it weren’t so lacking in charm. And that’s what I love about your Books Around the Table blog – it’s all about celebrating the charm of the handmade, and the tactile joy of creativity.
    (Ironically, I have to grudgingly admit that without computers, I wouldn’t have discovered your brilliant blog – so it’s not all bad!)

  3. Thanks for visiting Books Around the Table, Deirdre. Did you know that teachers in Seattle – and many other places in the country – no longer teach cursive handwriting in our schools?! I find that positively depressing. – my grandson will struggle to read letters my family wrote to me before computers took over….You’re right, though, that computers have managed to put us in touch in some ways (like this, for example!)

  4. Empty notebooks, blank paper, sharp pencils, an array of pens. Heaven. As a kid, along with dreaming about being let loose in a candy story, I dreamed of being let loose in a stationery store or arts supply store. Like you, it was the allure of the empty page more than anything else that drew me. The possibilities! A vague picture of myself scribbling down ideas or sketches. The actual work of keeping a journal… not so much.

    • My weakness, Bonny, in addition to notebooks (and paper in general) was graph paper. And tracing paper. And rulers. And and and….

  5. My first diary was also white with a lock and key. Can’t remember what I wrote in it, but didn’t keep it up for very long. I have quite a few blank notebooks around here too, and like you, enjoy having them but don’t feel compelled to fill them on a regular basis. Is there a word for being addicted to paper products or blank pages? 🙂

  6. I think I remember a New Yorker cartoon from years ago with the caption Men Working in Trees – showing a man in a suit at a desk in a tree. ???
    Oh, and I love blank notebooks too. I doodle in them.

  7. I do remember that joke, Julie!

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