Tag: diaries

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.