Tag: diaries

Once More to the Digital Journal

Photo by Jessica Lewis Creative on Pexels.com

There are some things for which I cannot make up my mind. Since 2017, I’ve been writing about my paper journals. I’ve generally kept a journal (or diary, or notebook) since I was 24 years old. The vast majority of this has been on paper. There have been gaps, but this blog has served to fill many of those gaps. After a long gap, in 2017 I came across an article about Henry David Thoreau’s journals, and I wrote about that. In a comment to that post, a reader pointed me to an article on the journals of John Gaad and that was eye-opening to me. Almost at once, I started a paper journal again and have kept that up more or less these last 4+ years, filling nearly nine large Moleskine Art Collection sketchbooks. I love the tactile feeling of the notebook, the paper, and I enjoy writing with my fountain pen.

A stack of my paper journals

There have been small gaps along the way even here. Almost a year ago, for instance, I decided to try keeping my journal in Obsidian. That lasted a few weeks before the guilt of not writing my journals on paper began to creep back in. I went back to my paper journal, until later in the year when I decided that, for practical reasons, I should go back to a digital format. That too didn’t last very long before I was back on paper.

Recently, I’ve found myself skipping my journal entries quite a bit because I am too tired to write them out. I have a lot to say, but it takes me a long time to scribble my thoughts out on paper. I missed journal entries for the last 2 weeks of our vacation, for instance. Not writing in my journal is worse than any medium on which I decide to keep it. So I am once more heading back to the digital journal format, flipping and flopping like a politician.

This time, I’m trying to make a better effort. I recently wrote about how I’ve changed my daily notes, using a single file instead of a separate file for each day. These daily notes (captured in a text file in Obsidian) capture the factual part of my day. Often my journal entries were just a reprise of the facts of the day as well. I thought that since I had my daily notes for the facts, I could use my journal for thoughts and introspection related (or not) to those facts. Factual journal entries are quick and easy, but thoughtful, introspective entries require more effort, both mental and physical. Try as I might, I wasn’t up to the task of handwriting these entires and I was losing them because of that.

That is when I decided (back on January 10) to switch to keeping my journal in Obsidian again. This time, however, I am doing it as a deliberate experiment, and I have a goal: keep my journal in digital form in Obsidian for the remainder of 2022. At the beginning of 2023, I’ll review how things went, good and bad, and decide if I want to continue with this format or switch back to my paper journals.

There are some advantages to this:

  1. Because I preface each entry with an index number, I can refer to journal entries easily in Obsidian using links. My daily notes file can therefore takeover as a chronological index to my journal. Previously, I’ve done this indexing on paper.
  2. The journal is easier to search, though my need to search it is not that frequent.
  3. I can type fast and without much effort, unlike handwriting which is slow–much slower than I think–and tiring, so I have the potential of capturing more of those thoughtful, introspective entries.
  4. I’m committing a year and can reconsider after that, but since I’ve given paper journals many years experimentation, it seems only fair that I try this method for longer than a few weeks.
  5. If I decide that digital works for me after a year, I can still have my cake and eat it, too. There are services like Lulu that allows one to create books and I can create annual printed volumes of my journals to sit on a shelf with my existing ones if I want to.

One thing I’ll want to look at a year from now is not only if I was successful in keeping the journal in Obsidian for a year, but also was I successful in being more thoughtful and introspective. It will be particularly interesting to see how my new daily notes format (about which I’ll have much more to say in Episode 16 of my Practically Paperless with Obsidian series) combined with my journal text file capture a picture of what goes on in my life.

I thought about just switching without making an announcement like this one, but I felt it would be dishonest for me not to admit this change. If nothing else, it shows that there are some things that are complex enough to me that I can’t readily make up my mind. I’ve failed at this before. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think real experimentation is key to making a final decision on this.

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How I Index My Journals

I have written quite a bit about my journaling: the paradox of journaling; a year on paper; how my journal notebooks have changed over the years, and more. One thing I haven’t written about is how I go about indexing my journals. Since I’ve had at least one person ask about this, I thought it might be a useful post for others.

First, let me remind folks that the current incarnation of my journal began back in October 2017, after I’d read a piece in the Atlantic on Thoreau’s journals. A comment then led me to the journals of John Gadd, and his journals provided the model for my current journals. In that article, was this:

And each Christmas he sets aside two weeks to meticulously index that year’s diary – proudly claiming he can find anything within three minutes.

I was fascinated by the idea of indexing my journals to make it easier to find what I was looking for. Back when I was an Evernote Ambassador, I used to claim that I could find any note within a minute or two, and so the notion of doing this in a paper system intrigued me. Unfortunately, the article didn’t go into any detail as to how Gadd indexed his journals. I had to figure that out on my own.

The system that follows works pretty well for me. If I could start it all over, I might do a few things differently, and I’ll mention those things later on. One thing I’d be really curious about is if other folks have better ways of indexing their journals on paper. I realize that I could do this digitally, but part of the pleasure it being able to do this without electronics of any kind.

A few notes about my journal

For my index to make sense, you need to understand a few things about my journal. First, I number each entry in my journal sequentially, beginning from entry #1 in the first volume. The numbering is independent of the date, which is separate from the entry. The idea for indexing the entry as opposed to using a page number comes from what Isaac Asimov did with his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. Tired of the tedious work of producing indexes keyed to galley page numbers, Asimov decided to number each entry in the book and key the index to the numbered entry rather than the page number. This suited me perfectly for my journals, because I knew they would span multiple volumes (9 as of this writing) and that way, I’d never have to refer to anything other than the unique entry number.

It is also important to note that there are generally four types of entries in my journal:

  1. A standard entry, summarizing the goings on (see #723 in the image below).
  2. A topical entry, usually titled, on some specific subject (see #28 in the image below).
  3. A book entry, which summarizes my thoughts on a book I’ve recently finished reading (see #917 in the image below).
  4. A “commonplace” entry, which has quote from things I’ve read with my own comments (see #725 in the image below).

Below are examples of each of these types of entries.

The type of entry has some bearing on how I decide what to include and leave out of my index.

Structure of my index

I use a Leuchtturm1917 notebook for my index. The index has two sections:

  1. Monthly line-a-day summaries
  2. Topical index

Monthly line-a-day summaries

A monthly line-a-day summary fits on a single page. It lists the month and year across the top and the dates going down the page. The idea for this model came from John Quincy Adams’s line-a-day entries in his diaries. (If you want a fun way to see an example of this each day, follow JQAdams_MHS on Twitter.) The image below shows a typically line-a-day page, with annotations that follow.

  1. The month and year.
  2. The dates, listed down the page. The “S”s represent Sundays.
  3. A typical entry.
  4. An entry with a reference to a journal entry (in this case, to entry 159).
  5. Days surrounded in blue are days that I am out of town, either with, or without the family.

These pages are extremely useful for finding something in the context of time. “When was it we went to Hershey, PA?” I I’m pretty sure it was in October or November 2017. I quick scan of the two pages will answer the question. The first 193 pages of the notebook are reserved for these monthly entries. Currently, they fill 48 pages, so there is plenty of room to grow.

Topical index

The remaining 50+ pages of the notebook are reserved for a topical index. There is a set of facing pages for each letter of the alphabet, as well as a # page for entries that begin with number. A topical index page looks like this:

Because of the varied nature of what I write and when I write it, there is no way to keep the entries on a given page in any type of order. So they are entered sequentially as I need them. The entries themselves consist of two parts:

  1. The topic
  2. The corresponding journal entry numbers that relate to the topic.

In the image above, for instance, you can see that “baseball” has six entry references; “boo-at-the-zoo” has two references. Parentheticals after the reference number provide some context. For instance, under the “books” entry, you’ll note a parenthetical indicating “unread” which means the entry has to do with unread books. Many of them have a “book” or “bk” which means it refers to a book summary that I wrote upon complete the book.

Process for indexing my journals

These days, I use the large, A4-sized Moleskine Art Collection notebooks for my journals. These have about 96 usable pages in each volume. Depending on my mood, a single volume can represent anywhere from 2-6 months worth of entries. Here is how I go about updating my index:

WhenWhat I do
Upon completing an entryReview the entry to see if there is anything worth adding to the topical index. If so, I try to add it as soon as I’ve completed writing the entry.
DailyWhen I finish writing in my journal for the day, I’ll do the line-a-day entry for that day, either immediately after finishing, or first thing the following morning.
Upon completing a volumeI’ll skim the monthly index for obvious items that should go into the topical index; if I have not already put them in, I’ll add them. I will then go through the full volume, checking to see if there is anything else I want to add to the topical index that I haven’t already added.

If I am good about keeping up the index more-or-less in realtime, then the final review of a volume usually takes about an hour. I prefer doing this in realtime (as opposed to John Gadd’s method of taking 2 weeks off at the end of the year because (a) it spreads out the work so that it is only a little effort each day, and (b) it makes the index immediately useful for current events.

How I choose what goes into the topical index

The topical index is the most difficult part. The completist in me wants to capture everything in the topical index, but that would be too time consuming. What I have done therefore, is to try to strike a balance between representativeness and practicality. I do this by asking myself a couple of questions:

  • Is this something that I have needed to search for in the past?
  • Is this something that I would have a fair chance of needing to look up in the future?

If the answer to either of these questions is “Yes”, then I include the item in the topical index.

This gets easier over time as I’ve gotten experience, both with adding items and searching for things. Also, as more topics get added, the likelihood is greater that it is already there in the index and I just have to add an entry number.


If anyone is thinking of modeling their own indexes on this, here are a few lessons I’ve taken from what I’ve done thus far. I might do these things a little differently if I were to do it all over.

  • Carefully consider how much space you’ll need for you topical index. In some instances, I feel like a 2-page spread is not enough. In other cases, 2-pages is too much (I don’t think I’d fill half a page with Q or X entries).
  • Separate people into their own index. People, especially immediate family members, have a lots of entries. I included them in the topical index, but in some cases, I could see their entries taking up one of the two pages available for the letter in question.
  • For topics you write about a lot, be sure to leave plenty of space in the index for entry numbers.

I’d be curious about how other people index their journals on paper like this. I know that this could also be done using text files, but I enjoy the process of manually writing these indexes, and having my little index book sitting among my journals. If you index your journals on paper, I’d love to know how you do it. If you are willing, let me know in the comments.

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Better Labeling for My Journals

When I fill up a volume of my journal, I usually stick a label on the spine. The label contains the volume number, the dates that the journal covers, and the entry number range included in the volume. I give each entry a unique number and index my journals using these numbers so it is nice to have them on the spine for quick reference. Sitting on the shelf by my desk, these labels look like this:

my journals with white labels

The problem, as you can see from the photo, is that they peel off easily. On some volumes, I’ve tapes the ends of the labels onto the notebook. On others, I keep trying to get the label to stick at least once a day. It isn’t pretty no matter how you look at it.

Not long ago, over on Facebook, my friend Michael A. Burstein was looking for a way to label his Field Notes notebooks clearly on the inside front cover. On some version of the notebook (those with lighter covers) it is easy to scribble in the information. On ones that are dark, it is harder. Ultimately, Michael’s solution was to use a pen that could be easily read on dark surfaces.

I went online to see how other people handled this problem with Moleskine notebooks. Most of them did what Michael did. So, I ordered some Sharpies that are designed for writing on dark surfaces, and this afternoon, I pulled off the labels from my journal notebooks and instead, used the Sharpie to scribble in the results. I think it came out looking pretty good:

my journals labeled using sharpies for dark surfaces

It is clear, legible, and nothing is peeling anymore. I am happy.

Incidentally, I was reminded earlier today that I have never written about how I index my journals. You can see the smaller index notebook on the top of the stack. I’m not sure if how I do it is the right way to do it, or if there even is a right way, but you can expect post in the near future on just how I go about indexing these journals. Once you see how I am doing it, I’d be open to suggestions for improving what is certainly something of a hack.

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How My Journal Notebooks Have Changed Over the Years

When I first started keeping a journal/diary, I used a thin, bluish “Record” book that I found in an office supply story. I bought for two reasons: (1) it was inexpensive, and (2) it was thin. I wasn’t sure how long this endeavor of mine would last. If I filled one notebook, I could buy another. So, on April 6, 1996, I made my first entry in that “Record” book.

After filling two volumes of that notebook, I felt more confident that I could keep up my journal every day. When the time came to get a new volume after filling the second, I opted for something larger. This time, I bought a thick, leather-bound volume that contained more than 300 lined pages. This was a more expensive notebook than the blue record book I’d used, but I was making a little more money so I figured I could afford it. As an added bonus, the pages were numbered. I ended up filling three of these volume between late 1996 through 1999.

In both of these notebooks were lined, but other than that, were completely free-form. There was nothing limiting what I would write. Most entries were relatively short for a given day, but some could go on for a page or more. The pens I used varied. Flipping through these older journals, I find a mix of blue and black inks, as well as print and cursive writing depending upon my moods.

When the millennium rolled around, I decided once again to change things up. I decided to buy a “Standard Diary” dated for the year, with the idea that I could continue these volumes on into the new century. The edition I chose was one that had a pre-printed page for each day in the year, with the date already there. All I had to do was fill the page. This simplified things, somewhat. I had a limited amount of space for each day, and so I didn’t have to worry about filling pages and pages each day. Just hit the highlights. I was inspired in this by a passage from the first volume of Isaac Asimov’s autobiography, In Memory Yet Green. Writing about starting his own diary, Asimov said,

In most cases, I suspect, a dairy pasta for a few days, a few weeks, a year at most. Sometimes, though, it endures, and in my case it did. It is still going on today, and dozens of annual diaries stand side-by-side on my shelf like good and faithful soldiers, each of them, with one or two exceptions, in the same style.

The idea of having a shelfful of these standard diaries side-by-side appealed to me.

The Standard Diary lasted five years, although in 2010, I went back to it for a single year. After 2010 my written journal become more intermittent as I wrote more and more on this blog (which started in 2005).

In 2017, things changed again. I’d written a post on the paradox of journaling, and in reply to that post, a reader, Jack Bary, pointed me to an article about a fellow named John Gadd, who’d been keeping a journal since 1947. The article was a revelation to me. In this article, I saw how it was possible to really keep a journal, to do it all longhand, to index it, and to make it multimedia. So in October 2017, my journaling began again with renewed vigor. After pondering several choices, I settled on the Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbook A4. At $27/each, it was by far the most expensive notebook I’d used to that point.

I fell in love with it almost at once. The paper is off-white and thick, at 111 lb. There are 96 usable pages, all completely blank which makes it perfect for both written word and pictures and other items. I began to tape photos into the books along with my entries. Sometime ticket stubs from events would find their way in, or “I Voted” stickers alongside entries on elections I’ve voted in. I also decided to try something new: rather than try to index my notebook by page, I gave each entry a unique number (beginning at #1) and when I index things, I refer to the entry number. This has proved useful in several ways. In volume 3 I might refer to an entry in volume one simply by number. Unlike page number, the entry numbers don’t restart with each volume.

Since October 2017, I’ve filled 8 of these volumes, approximately 770 pages over the last 4 years. They have been more successful than any other notebook I’ve tried.

And yet, I recently decided to try mixing it up once again. I happened to look back at pictures John Gadd’s notebooks from the article and saw that his notebooks were lined. I thought perhaps a lined notebook would help with my handwriting. These days, I write my journals in cursive because I can write faster, but the legibility varies from day-to-day. Perhaps lined paper would help with the consistency, I thought.

I ordered a Moleskine Classic Notebook, Hardcover XXL. At 8-1/2 x 11 inches, it is a little smaller than the A4. On the other hand, it has twice the number of pages. And they are lined pages. It is also even more expensive than the Art Collection version at $29. Alas, my little experiment lasted exactly 3 days. The main problem was the quality of the paper. It is less than half as thick as the Art Collection paper. Ink from my fountain pen easily bleeds through. And because the paper is so thin, it is not as easy to tape or glue photos and other things into the notebook. You can see some of this illustrated below, with the Art Collection edition on the left and the newer Classic Notebook on the right.

The new notebook didn’t even make it 2 full pages before I realized it was wrong for me. Indeed, if you can manage to read my writing on the right-hand page, the final paragraph of the top entry reads:

Not sure if I like the thin paper in this notebook. There is a lot of bleed through. But I am going to stick with it for now because I have the notebook and I don’t want it to go to waste.

This morning I realized that it just doesn’t work for me, so I am going back to my trusted Art Collection editions. I think I knew how much I liked the Art Collection editions from pretty early on. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get my hands on them in later years so I bought a bunch in advance. There, on my shelf where my journals are arrayed like good and faithful soldiers, are 3 blank Art Collection notebooks, still in their shrink wrap. I just pulled one of them off the shelf, and volume 9 will start today.

It is important to experiment with change. Sometimes you discover something new and wonderful. Other times, you learn that what you’ve been doing all along really is what works best for you.

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Thoughts on Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Way back in 2005 or 2006, my brother-in-law1 introduced me to David Sedaris’s books. He did this one evening by describing to me some of the funny stories Sedaris recounts. They were indeed funny, and the events of that evening seemed to mimic the humor of what I was hearing. At the time my brother-in-law was in school and I was staying with him. The room had two single beds each of which was on rollers, one on one side of the room, the other on the opposite side. Apparently, the floors of the rooms were bowed in toward the center of the room and throughout the course of the night, the beds rolled toward the center of the room.

For some reason, I never ended up reading a David Sedaris book. That happens sometimes. There are always more books to read. Recently, however, I decided to change that. A few years back, Sedaris came out with a book called Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. This was a collection of diary entries that Sedaris culled from journals he’s kept most of his life. I was mainly attracted by the word “diaries.” I have a fascination with diaries, having kept my own for a quarter century now. I enjoy dipping into John Quincy Adams’s diaries now and then, or the Journals of Henry David Thoreau. I have a theory that there is an entire history of civilization waiting to be told in unread diaries, journals, manuscripts. Sometimes, these come to light, and add real, practical color historic events. I also happened to note that Sedaris has a second volume of his diaries, A Carnival of Snackery: Diaries 2003-2020, coming out in October. So why not give them a try.

Try them I did, and I flew through the book, laughing more often than not. But there were several striking similarities between Sedaris’s methods for keeping his diary and my own. In the introduction, for instance, he writes,

I was never one to write about my feelings, in part because they weren’t that interesting (even to me) but mainly because they were so likely to change.

When I started my own diary in 1996, it was with the express idea to record events, rather than feeling. I took Isaac Asimov as an example. This is how he wrote his diary. Over the years however, my feelings changed (ironically) and eventually, I began to record my feelings about things as well.

In 1979, Sedaris says, “I began numbering my entries.” I began doing this in 2017. My idea was that if I wanted to index my diary, I could key the index to the numbered entry, which I maintain from one volume to the next, so that I didn’t have to worry about page number. I’ve kept this up ever since, writing entry #1 back on October 13, 2017, and writing entry #1933 this morning.

One final similarity I noted:

Another old-fashioned practice I maintain is carrying a notebook, a small one I keep in my shirt pocket and never leave the house without. In it I register all the little things that strike me, not in great detail but just quickly.

I’ve written often about how I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket. Originally, it was a shirt pocket, but now it’s just my back pocket.

Reading Sedaris’s diaries was both fun and interesting. He is funny even in his diaries. But it was also interesting to see the progression of someone who went from scraping for various manual labor jobs to someone who eventually lived in Paris and London, toured for his books, and became a successfully writer. I think this kind of thing is heartening to many writers who start out feeling like they will never amount to much.

Diaries are a tricky thing to consider from a literary perspective. People writing for themselves are writing for an audience of one. The writing is not designed to be the polished prose presented to the public. Stephen King calls this “writing with the door closed.” I think anyone who writes a diary understands this, although there are some diaries that read like prose: John Quincy Adams and Henry David Thoreau are two that come to mind.

I thought some of the funniest things that appeared in the diary were imagined retorts Sedaris had to people or events taking place. In particular, his description of some of the writing he did for his French teacher while learning French are absolutely hilarious.

There is a certain vulnerability about sharing one’s diary with the world–at least while one is still walking the earth. I’ve often wondered if John Quincy Adams considered posterity when writing his own diary. Did he know that people would be reading it more than 200 years later? Could Leonardo Da Vinci have imagined people would be reading his notebooks half a millennia after they were written? Sedaris has made some of his diary available and I was thoroughly entertained by it. I am already looking forward to October when the next volume comes out.

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  1. He has written here for the blog. Check out his hilarious tribute to Tommy Lasorda.

Failed Attempts at Digital Journaling

My Moleskine paper journals

It is important to know what you are not good at, if for no other reason than to decide either to improve, or to stop wasting time on them. Over the years, for instance, I have made several attempts at keeping my journal in digital form, instead of in notebooks of various kinds. My reasons for doing this always seem pure. I type faster than I handwrite. It My typing is not illegible when I type faster. My hands grow less tired when I type. I think this means I’ll write more on a computer than I would in a notebook.

But it never works out. Take my most recent foray into digital journaling. I was looking for small efficiencies in my day. I thought that by being able to type my journal, I’d get it done faster, possibly write more, and also have a place where I could easily search my journal for what I was looking for. All of these were perfectly sensible. And still, things turned out much worse than if I just stuck to writing in my Moleskine notebooks.

This most recent adventure began about a month ago, and at first, it seemed to work well. Between June 29 and July 16 I banged out nearly 7,000 words in my digital journal, far more than I probably would have written on paper, although I’m not completely certain of this. So far, so good, right? Well, since July 17, I haven’t written a word–the longest stretch I’ve gone without writing in my journal since possibly 2017.

This is part of a recurring pattern. Ever since I first started keeping a journal in 1996, I’ve been repeatedly fooled by the paradox of journaling, in much the way Charlie Brown is lured by Lucy’s promises that she won’t pull the football away this time. Every now and then, some whisper in my mind tells me it will be much easier if I type it into a computer than writing in a notebook. It hints at time saved; it hints at the ability to search my journal using regular expressions. It is an alluring voice, the dark twin of the call of the wild. The problem is, I can never sustain it for very long, and ultimately give it up.

I cannot explain why this should be. When I write in my notebooks with pen and ink, I can go for years without skipping a day. It took all of two and a half weeks for me to give up my digital journal. I’ve tried to think about what causes this. The answers I have thus far are weak and uncertain, but two are worth contemplating

  1. I spend enough time on computers that I want to be done and so I don’t put in the extra time to write my journal.
  2. I somehow feel that there is more permanence to what I write in a notebook, and am therefore more committed to it as a lasting repository of my writing than digital media.

I think the latter point may be the crux of the issue for me. When I read Walter Isaacson’s fantastic biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I was impressed by a point Isaacson made the importance of which seemed all out of proportion with the rest of the book. Isaacson wrote:

[Da Vinci’s] mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

Somehow, I have internalized this. Indeed, I’ve had the experience where some of my digital writing is forever lost to the ether. While I have most of the stories I’ve ever written going back to 1992 in digital form, I have nearly none of the digital journaling I’ve ever done. Instead, I have diaries and notebooks filling with my journal writing. The one exception to this strange rule is my writing here on the blog, which covers a span (as of this writing) of 16 years and is, in some respects, a kind of public-facing journal. Still, I have this suspicion that because my physical notebooks have weight and texture, they, and what they contain, are more valuable than intangible bits stored in clouds.

I suppose that if you were to search this blog, you’d find among the nearly 7,000 posts, a few where I confess this problem, only to write later on about yet another attempt to migrate my journal into the digital realm. This is me in the role of Charlie Brown, to the digital world’s Lucy, holding a virtual football, and then pulling it away at the last moment. Sometimes, even when I recognize my mistakes and failings, it is hard not to repeat them.

All of this to say: as of this morning, I am back to fountain pen and ink in my Moleskine Art Collection large sketchbooks.

In the future, if you see me eagerly writing about how I am once again going to move my journal into digital form of some kind, kindly drop a comment on that post with a gentle reminder of the inevitable results. I think a simple, “Good grief!” would do the trick.

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Journals of the Plague Year

As we passed the year-mark for the pandemic, I went back to my journals from early 2020 to see if I could find when I first mentioned the coronavirus. As best as I can tell, it was on February 24, 2020 when I mentioned, at the very end of that day’s entry: “Stock market down 1,000 points on coronavirus fears.”

On March 5, 2020, I wrote, “I’m not sure what to make of the coronavirus . There is so much conflicting information that I find myself relying on a combination of common sense and my knowledge of science.” I noted that there had been 11 death from the virus thus far. “I keep drawing mental comparisons,” I wrote, “to the outbreaks of Yellow Fever and smallpox during Revolutionary times.”

I typically fill a 100-page volume of my journal (written in large Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks) in 5-6 months. But I filled an an entire volume in the period between February 6 – June 25, 2020 alone, the second shortest period after the very first volume of this incarnation of my journal. And much of what I wrote was about the virus.

As someone who is fascinated by journals and diaries, I’ve often considered them to be a source of untapped personal analytics and other data. Before iPhones and FitBits kept track of our movements and heart rates, diaries and journals, letters and other correspondence were a rich source of this (implied and inferred) data. Collective war letters provide a different perspective to war than what a history book might have to say about them, for instance. And so I wonder what kind of data is stored within the journals of people around the globe when it comes to the COVID pandemic.

March 11, 2020: “News of the Coronavirus is getting more serious with ‘social distancing’ the new watchword of the day. It does’t stem the outbreak but it does make its impact on resources more manageable. I think the outlook now is something like, ‘be diligent, but plan on getting the virus.'”

March 12, 2020: “NBA has suspended its season and NCAA will be playing without crowds. MLB has suspended spring training and is delaying the start of the season at least 2 week.”

March 13, 2020: “The most dire predictions of the virus’s spread sees as many as 170 million people in the U.S. contracting the virus–and between 400,000 to over 1 million deaths from it.” On that day, just a year ago, we canceled out planned trip to Florida.

March 15, 2020: an entire page in my journal is dedicated to a list of all of the stuff I bought at the store to stock up on because there were rumors that shortages were coming. The list is 2 columns long.

March 16, 2020: we had our first Zoom call with my parents, brother and sister, something that evolved into a weekly Sunday afternoon affair this is still going on today.

March 18, 2020: all three of our kids began distance-learning, something that continued for the remainder of the 2020 school-year, and, for my son at least, for the 2020-21 school year as well, until just last week, when he finally went back into the classroom for the first time in a year.

I’ve heard of people who say they’ve burned their journals (or will burn them before they die). I’ve never understood that, but I guess people keep journals for different purposes. I think of the information we might have lost if John Adams or Leonardo da Vinci had burned their journals. I’ve always wanted a record of things I’ve done, even the mundane things, so that I could look back on it. For me, my journal is another reference book, like dictionary or almanac. I also thought it would make a fascinating read for my children and their children. I imagine my kids telling their kids about living through the pandemic, the way my grandfather talked about lie during the Great Depression. All I had from my grandfather were some vague memories and axioms about this time in his life. I would have been fascinated to read about what his day-to-day life during those times, if only he’d kept a journal.

This is something at least my kids will be able to do, if they wanted to.

Diaries, Journals, Commonplace Books and Notebooks

What is the difference between a diary and journal? I can’t find much of a difference in how the terms are used. They seem interchangeable, but that only means that somewhere on the Internet, a big flame war exists over the subtle differences between these terms.

Accord to Merriam-Webster, a diary is “a record of events, transactions, or observations kept daily or at frequent intervals.” After that it says “: JOURNAL”. I had to lookup what that meant in the Explanatory Chart. It is a synonymous reference, which is Merriam-Webester’s way of saying that diaries and journals are the same thing.

Merriam-Webster says a journal is “a record of experiences, ideas, or reflections kept regularly for private use.” I noted that there was no synonymous reference back to DIARY. Both, it seems, are a record of events and experiences. The definition of “diary” refers to transactions, which is sort of odd. I think of journal (specifically, a double-entry book-keeping journal) as more transactional than a diary.

I think I use the terms interchangeably, although I say that I journal (verb) more than I say, “write in my diary.”

Journals/diaries don’t seem as popular as they once were. At least, from my reading, it seems that people kept diaries more than they used to. There are, of course, famous diaries, like those of John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, or Anne Frank. At one point last year I began reading the diary of Samuel Pepys. I suspect there are three reasons I don’t see as many people admitting to having diaries as they once did:

  1. There are no courses in keeping a diary. Certainly, I never learned how or why to do this in my schooling, a lapse that I am both grateful for, and that I also lament.
  2. Time is occupied by other activities. John Quincy Adams, even at his busiest, did not have social media, movies, and television competing for his attention.
  3. Litigation. People worry that what they write can be subpoenaed and so they don’t record anything.

It is something of a shame, really. All of those historical diaries sitting in various collections contain valuable data about everyday life across all walks of life. It seems like there is useful research information in that aggregate data.

For many years, I used red Standard Diaries, keyed to the current year. These were convenient for their ready-made pages, but limiting in that there was only one relatively small page per day. If I wanted to write more, I felt constrained. If I didn’t fill a page, I felt it a waste. Now I use large Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, which have big blank pages that I can use however I see fit.

Assuming that diary and journal are interchangeable, there are two other written records that confuse me from time-to-time. There is the notebook, which Merriam-Webster defines as “a book for notes or memoranda.” When I think of a notebook, I think of the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. The line blurs, it seems to me. Certainly some of his notes were memoranda, some were notes, some were reflections, some designs. Were these not really just “working”journals?

Lab books are another type of notebook. Lab books are supposed to be a scientists notes for their experiments and discoveries. They showed progress, evolution of thought and ideas, and ultimately provided a recipe for others to reproduce their results. That is how my “notes” are today, although they are digital rather than notebook form. But that is not how I was taught to keep a lab book in college. In college, the implication in my chemistry and physics classes was that you had two lab books. One for your raw notes, the other one, a “cleaned up” version that you turned in for grades. I could never afford two so I always turned in my messy, raw notes.

A commonplace book is perhaps the most interesting of these forms of recording, and yet Merriam-Webster gives it the shortest shrift: “A book of memorabilia.” I first learned about commonplace books reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson. Back in his time, a commonplace book was a kind of learning tool. He recorded passages from his readings in the book, along with his own notes. It seems like another valuable learning tool that I was never taught in any of my formal schooling. You don’t hear much about commonplace books these days, although there was recently an article about digital commonplace books in the New York Times.

Today, instead of diaries and journals and commonplace books, we have blogs and Twitter and Facebook. And yet I keep thinking about something Walter Isaacson wrote in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci:

HIs mind, I think, is best revealed in the more than 7,200 pages of his notes and scribbles that, miraculously, survive to this day. Paper, turns out to be a superb information-storage technology, still readable after five hundred years, which our own tweets likely won’t be.

If I’d had a commonplace book, I might have copied this passage into it, instead of just highlighting it in the book.

Journal in Obsidian Notes?

Once I got the hang of how Obsidian worked for me, once I realized the power of its linking capabilities, and that it really did everything I wanted a note-taking app to do, it was natural to consider what could go into my vault. Daily notes were a given, of course. All of my reading notes, and even a version of my reading list could go in there. Borrowing some concepts from Zettelkasten, it could become a kind of digital commonplace book, something I’ve always wanted. What about my journal? With all of the other information in one place, linkable and searchable, it seemed to make sense that my journal should go there as well.

The thing is, my journal has always been handwritten, going back to 1996. There were times when I experimented with it in a digital form, but I always came back to the handwritten form. In the current incarnation (since late 2017), they fill eight Moleskine Art Collection sketchbooks.

My collection of journals.
My collection of Moleskine journals

As it turns out, how I keep my journal lends itself Obsidian linking. Rather than an entry-per-day, I number entries, beginning at 1. Each discrete entry gets its own number. I date the first one of each day, but there may be two or three entries in a day, each of which will have its own number. I did this thinking ahead: if I ever wanted to index the thing, I wouldn’t have to worry about what volume or page and entry was on. All I’d need was its entry number. (I took this lesson from Isaac Asimov’s description of how he numbered entries in his Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology in order to avoid the tedious work of tying index entries to page numbers.) Thus, I have 1,782 unique “entries” each with its own number. This makes it ideal for linking in Obsidian.

Several weeks ago, I decided to give it a try, and I began writing my journal entries in Obsidian, giving each entry a unique number, continuing from where I left off. I liked being able to link these entries to other notes.

Journal entries listed in Obsidian
Journal entries in Obsidian

Something nagged at me, however. I missed writing in my journal. I missed how the pages contain more than just writing. I paste pictures and clippings in the pages. Sometimes I sketch things. It just didn’t feel the same typing the entries rather than writing them out in my journal.

A typical multimedia page from my journal.
A typical “multimedia” journal entry

It occurred to me that I might have the best of both worlds with a little effort. At the end of each week, for instance, I could type up the entries I’d written in the Moleskine notebook, copying the entries into Obsidian. Then they’d be there for searching and linking. After a little thought, that felt like a monumental waste of time.

Last night, I decided not to keep my journal in Obsidian and to continue with the notebooks. I did this for several reasons:

  1. I still think there is a compelling argument for how long paper lasts. Digital media has been around half a century or so. Paper has been around centuries. Witness John Adams’s diaries or Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks.
  2. I don’t actually search through my journals that much to make it worthwhile to put every entry into digital form.
  3. When I do search them, I enjoy the feel of flipping through them, seeking out what I am looking for.

But there was one other thing that occurred to me that sealed the deal for me. My Daily Notes in Obsidian serve as an index to my life. If I needed to know when I wrote about something in my journal, I need go no further than my daily notes. I can search them for the appropriate reference and then use the date of those notes to look up any entries in my journal. Moreover, if I write something in the journal and want to make sure I can find it easily, I can just add a reference to the entry number in my daily notes.

That seemed to satisfy me, and with that, I began this morning, transcribing those entries I made in Obsidian back to my Moleskine notebook. Going forward, the journal will stay in a notebook, but I’ll rely more and more on the daily notes as a kind of compass for finding what I need.

My Journal in the Days of COVID

Toward the end of 2017, I switched to a new format for my journals: nice big Moleskine Art Collection Sketchbooks, the kind with 96 pages of heavy paper in each volume. These are, by far, my favorites of all of the various journals I’ve used over the years, from simple notebooks, to the brick red Standard Diaries.

This morning, I closed out the 6th volume in this format and cracked open the 7th (I buy these Moleskein notebooks four at a time because I have this silly fear that they will stop making them). As I was closing out the 6th volume, labeling the front cover and spine, I noted the dates: February 6 – June 25, 2020. I started this volume just before the COVID-19 pandemic set its teeth upon us. I noted something else, too. The date range is small than most of my previous volumes of equal length. I wasn’t certain so I went back to check.

Charting my recent journal volumes by days per volume.
Number of days in each volume of my journal since 2017

Each volume has 98 usable pages. With the exception of my first volume in this format, where I was excited about the new format and writing more than usual, this most recent volume contains significantly fewer days than my average, meaning I have been writing more each day since February. Skimming through the volume bears this out. Indeed, my entries are considerably longer, often detailing the news of the day as it relates to the pandemic. Rarely in previous volumes do I report on the current news, other than to call out notable events to provide context for when they happen in my life. But in this most recent volume, events unfolded so quickly that I sometimes had to make bulleted lists of all that happened, like this example from March 13:

A list of current events in my journal

I also find that I used this most recent volume as a way to vent my concerns and frustrations about the pandemic as a way of relieving stress. Sometimes I go on for a page or more venting these concerns. I don’t generally do this in my journals, so this is an indication of particular stress on my part, I suppose.

This made me wonder how many other people are recording their experiences during the pandemic in a similar fashion. So much history is captured this way that rarely sees the light of day, I imagine. Sometimes, it finds it way into public view, often long after the face: John Adams and John Quincy Adams diaries paint fascinating pictures of life in Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary America; war letters from during the Civil War, World War I and II have a similar collective effect. I wonder if, a century from now, a Ph.D. candidate will make a study of life during the pandemic and turn to those journals that still exist for a look into what the world was like? Of course, digital records and journals may exist was well, but I’m still skeptical of their durability compared to paper.

I did make one interesting experiment in this most recent volume of my journal. Beginning on March 5, influenced by both the beauty of John Quincy Adams’ handwriting in his journals, and my desire to write more during the pandemic without growing tired, I switched from my normal mode of printing, to cursive entries. (see above). This experiment lasted until June 10th, most of my 6th volume. I stopped for one reason: I found it difficult to read my own handwriting at times. These journals are a reference book for me, and I sometimes imagine my kids (and perhaps, one day, their kids) reading through these. They need to be legible first and foremost, and try as I might, my cursive writing is less legible the faster I write.

Experiment tried, experiment failed.