This week’s column for the Financial Times is about Pamela Paul’s My Life With Bob – an account of the slim, no-frills notebook where she kept the simplest of records, logging the names of all the books she read, from 1988 onwards. So simple, and yet so revealing, if you can bring yourself to be honest and log *everything* you read, not just the books that make you look good.
I’ve often felt, guiltily, that I should keep a diary, on the grounds that it is a thing Real Writers do. For a few years, as a teenager, I tried – but at some point, I realised I was recording only the moments of drama, the memorable stuff, not the quieter, everyday bits of living. I abandoned the diary and went back to climbing trees, falling off horses, running around the neighbourhood playing wildly inventive games with other friends, reading voraciously, et cetera.
Then I tried again as an adult, but this time, I found that I was recording only the quiet moments, the butterfly-watching, garden-tending, cookie-baking moments – life was too busy during the swirling dramatic bits for me to remember to keep a record.
These days, if there’s something I want to remember – a snatch of dialogue, a glimpse of strangers in the wood – I put it down on an index card, and leave it at that. Or I take a quick photograph. The one above is from the time I lived in Calvim in Goa. I was writing The Hundred Names of Darkness at a friend’s home, which was in a small village connected only by ferry to the mainland, at that time. I assumed I would remember everything about living there – the walk past the jackfruit trees and the cows, past the Sevros bakery, past the paddy fields, past the gap in the road where we would pause to see if a brown snake who lived by a rock wished to cross, which she sometimes did, down to the ferry proper, with its mangroves on the other side, the water snakes forming black ribbons in the water. I had forgotten all of that, or stored it elsewhere, in another box in the brain, until I saw this photograph this morning; the picture brought it all back, and now I have immense river-nostalgia.
Here is more about Paul’s elegant method, and Bob, her Book of Books – what a precise, accurate way to keep a record of the passing years!
“It is quite heroic to list with honesty everything that once appealed to you, without snobbery or discomfort. Even for the most fearless of diarists, much of the shadowed truths of their lives lie in what was not recorded, the moments that slipped through the fishing net of journal entries. Reading Paul, I began to see how much the books you gravitate towards reveal about your truest loves, your most instinctive urges, as well as more thoughtful, curated appetites.”