The Paradox of Journaling

I am fascinated by journals and diaries. My own diary was inspired by Isaac Asimov, after I learned he started a diary on his 18th birthday, and kept it up through his entire adult life. My own diary lasted about a decade, and then morphed into the blog I’ve had for the last dozen years.

An article in the November issue of the Atlantic on Thoreau’s “masterpiece” got me thinking about journals. Each time I read about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams, or Henry David Thoreau, I am always astonished at their ability to keep a journal. Part of it is what they have to say, and part of it represents a barrier that I keep running into each time I try to start a journal anew. I call it the paradox of modern journaling.

My paradox is based on two seemingly simple requirements I have:

  1. Be consistent.
  2. Have a journal that is readily and easily searchable.

Being Consistent

I was most consistent when I wrote my journal on paper, in At-A-Glance Standard Diaries, one for each year. Consistency was driven in part by the medium: the Standard Diaries I used had a single page for each day which limited how much time I spent writing in my journal. My journal was Asimovian, the opposite of Thoreau. I recorded my social calendar, my achievements, and little else.

Still, it was easy to be consistent. I took the volume with me when I traveled. All that was required to keep it up-to-date was a pen or pencil. I didn’t worry about power outages or wireless Internet access. If I missed a day, I could always go back and make it up. Occasionally, a page was blank, and I learned not to worry too much about that. Consistency is about habit, and habit, for me, is a forgiving bullseye.

Readily and easily searchable

Asimov’s rational for starting a diary was simple: he was often frustrated by the way people misremembered the past, and it wanted a place to preserve events. It would be a handy reference book. That logic fit well with my thinking, and was part of the reason I started my own diary.

What I found, however, was that my Standard Diaries, though good for consistency and habit-forming, were not very good for searching. On occasion, when I needed to find out when a particular event happened, I’d go searching through the volumes. If I had a good sense of timeframe, the search was relatively quick. But if I was searching for something that took place years earlier, or something that was obscured in my memory, I could spend an hour or more flipping through the volumes to find what I was looking for.

Writing on the blog was different. Because my writing is in digital form, it is usually easy to find what I am looking for. But I was never as consistent on the blog as I was in my Standard Diaries. And that is only part of the paradox.

The Persistence of Memory

Writing a journal in digital form, whatever that form might be, has many advantages. I can type much faster than I can handwrite. There are no physical impediments—pages, margins, volumes—to how much or how little I write. What I write is readily searchable. And, in theory, in digital form, with backup in place, what I write is readily preserved.

The thing is, I have never been as consistent typing my journals as I have been handwriting them into books. I don’t know why this is. I can’t explain it, and I don’t even have a theory.

Moreover, I have found that while it would seem that my digital journals are more preservable than my physical ones, I suspect the opposite. All of my Standard Diaries sit on shelf, along with my books, collecting dust, but safe, in the same form they’ve always taken. My digital writing, however, is scattered. This blog makes up some of it. I have various text files that have come and gone over the years. The very lack of consistency in digital form makes preserving it more precarious.

This seems true, generally. John Adams’ diaries have been preserved over the centuries. They have even been digitized for a curious public. Thoreau’s journals have also been preserved, and some of them are also available for people to read. These journals have survived centuries, but I can’t even consistently keep a journal online for decade.

Part of this comes from how we host our journals. Blogs are hosted by companies that come and go. What happens when they go? Diaries that sit on our shelves have no such dependency. There is always the risk of flood or fire, but no more than the risk of losing digital data.

Instinct tells me that good old-fashioned paper is the way to go for a consistent journal. And yet, paradoxically, those Standard Diaries I have are hard to search through.

The Story of My Life

Once I had children, my rational for journaling changed. I still think of my journals as a kind of almanac of my life, reference books, if you will. But I also think of them as representing the story of my life—one that might interest my kids as they get older. I see my journals as something to pass down to them, so that they can know their dad in ways that don’t come up in the ordinary course of life. This means preserving the journals in a way that will survive the constantly changing technical world.

Paper diaries have shown persistence through the ages, if for no other reason than paper has been around far longer than its digital cousin. So paper would seem to be the way to proceed going forward. But paper is hard to search. Maybe the answer is a compromise: keep my journal on paper for consistency and persistence, but scan the volumes into digital form to allow for better searching, and a hedge against physical disaster.


  1. This is exactly right, thanks for writing (typing!) it. I’m convinced that in 20 (or 50 or 100) years the only thing left of my writing will be what’s been stuffed into dozens of (mostly half-finished) notebooks and journals I have lying around. Handwritten journals also look way cooler :).

    As for searching, indexing is the key. It’s laborious though. For inspiration, see John Gadd.–Man-83-shows-Britains-biggest-personal-journal-hes-writing-66-years-times-size-War-Peace.html

  2. Just by way of options, I’ve taken the opposite path–I journal digitally (I’m more likely to be consistent that way) and then have a scripted event that prints them out quarterly–the hard copy then gets bound. Either way has its values!

    1. Thanks for the link! One thing I am toying with is a trick I picked up from Isaac Asimov. In his BIOGRAPHICAL ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, Asimov, who always prepared his own indexes, decided to do it in manuscript instead of waiting for page proofs. He did this by numbering each entry in the ENCYCLOPEDIA and keying his index to the entry number, rather than the page number. So in my journal, I have started to number entries sequentially, with the thought that at the end of the year, I can prepare an index keyed to entry number instead of page number. It has the advantage of being slightly more accurate than page number alone.

      1. That makes total sense to me. I think I’ll try it when I start my next Field Notes journal sometime this weekend.

  3. I journal at work, very little at home. My online blogging doesn’t really count.

    On your observation about blog hosting, I’ve seen you shift between WP and Medium. I’m glad your back on WP. However, I’ve been blogging via Jekyll since 2011 (started with Octopress in September ’11, shifted to straight Jekyll in October ’15). This means all my content is written in Markdown, hosted on Github, and compiled to static HTML. Thus, I’m not worried about the various shifts in blog companies. Right now my site is hosted on Google’s Firebase with images stored in AWS S3, so all I pay for is the domain name and a few pennies for storage..


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