Journal-keeping in a Digital World

Why, in this world of infinite choices and the great search-able eBay/Craigslist flea market, can’t I find the 6-ring notebook I’ve used since college for keeping a journal?Notebook1

It’s not as if iPhones and social media have abolished journal-keeping. Even twenty-somethings use pens and have private notebooks. Our 24-year-old daughter, for instance, says writing that way is life itself to her. When she’s writing in her a journal, she’s not worried about anything material – jobs, money, the future – at least not for the moment, she says.

Once upon a time, this was a popular tradition. As an American Studies graduate student, I was impressed with how 19th century writers like Thoreau and Emerson and an otherwise unmemorable Wall Street lawyer named George Templeton Strong kept life-long journals . When published in the 20th century, they ran to an incredible number of volumes. Everybody who was a reader, it seemed, was also a journal-keeper. And a writer.

Ralph-Waldo-EmersonIn fact, there’s a book about Emerson’s writing process called First We Read, Then We Write, by Robert Richardson. Emerson was the most popular public speaker in America, and many of his speeches became published classics of American literature. His journals were the warehouse of his publishable ideas and phrases. His strategy as a writer was to plagiarize his journals.

According to a review of First We Read, Then We Write in the Wilson Quarterly, Emerson went to the trouble of indexing his journals. Ten years after he began this self-referencing, he had compiled an index of 400 pages.That’s not the journals, but just the index! It had 839 names in the biographical cites. A word like “soul” might list 100 references.

If you are a writer, a journal is not only your savings bank, as Emerson called it. It’s also good exercise, a way to record what it felt like in a particular time (see Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”), a clarification of what you are reading and thinking (see William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn), and a record of details – the protein of all good writing.Notebook size

Online recently, I thought I had finally found more of the 6-ring notebooks I’ve been using for my journals. But when UPS delivered the box, I found they were half the size I needed. (Size was not among the information given online.) So I sent them back with this letter:

All-Pro Software
2936 S Fish Hatchery Rd #130
Fitchburg, WI 53711

Dear Friends,

I am returning these four Mead Loose-Leaf Memo Books with sadness in my heart. They aren’t the size I’d hoped for. I have been searching for twenty years for the perfect 6-ring binder that, for at least 20 years prior to that, my father and I used for our personal journals. Ours had exactly this type of metal ring binders (half-inch rings in two sets of 3), but for paper that was 5 ½ by 8 ½ inch, not your 3 ¾ x 6 ¾ inch size. The larger paper size was also previously available, but since I had to rely on my last supply of notebooks, or re-use them, I have easily created re-fill pages by cutting regular 8 ½ x 11-inch paper in half and hand-punching that 6-ring pattern of holes.
These lovely, larger 6-ring binders, going back 40 or so years, brown in color, were manufactured by Vernon-Royal, Vernon-McMillan, McMillan-Mead, and then MeadWestVaCo., as I recall the series of companies that gave the impression of multiple buyouts and corporate swallowings. Then, alas, our previous journal disappeared from the global marketplace. My father and I are both writers, journalists, poets and, like most men of letters up through the 19th century, journal-keepers. We both have a bookshelf full of these old notebooks – 30 or 40 in number. But our supply has run out, forcing me to recycle until the notebooks are worn past the capacity of duct tape to hold them together. The rings wear out.
I do believe that this product is ready for a revival. I could get a hard-cover journal by Moleskine for $32.95 (about four times what these 6-ring notebooks used to cost), but they lack the advantage of having pages that can be removed or added or computer-printed on. In this age of mobile digital devices, the sort of product I’m looking for – not a little datebook nor a 1-inch 3-ring binder, but a journal-size, leather-colored book with 6 smaller rings – would be a hot seller.
Please consider reviving this product. I’d buy 50 of them.

Sincerely, Doug Cumming


About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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