Week Thirty-Nine and Week Forty: “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion: plus exploring diaries, journals and faction works of Daniel Defoe, Galileo’s Daughter Suor Maria Celeste and more . . .

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Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion is one of the most famous collections of essays of all time. It contains an essay called “On Keeping A Notebook,” Didion’s meditation on maintaining a journal. This work has inspired many the notebook keeper.
“Why did I write it down?” says Didion. “In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? . . .
I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

What do you think? Do you keep a notebook of any kind? HERE is Didion’s essay. Read it, and feel free to share your thoughts on notebook-keeping.


Didion kept a notebook since she was five years old. She has a habit of writing down notes in order to remember certain situations. However, whenever she looks back on these notes, Didion often cannot remember to what the note is referring. The author reads one note about a woman in a dirty wrapper in a hotel bar and wonders why this was important to her at the time; as she ponders this, she recollects the morning she wrote the note and comes to the conclusion that she wrote the note not to remember the woman, but to remember the way she felt at the time. Here she explains to the reader that keeping a notebook is not to keep a factual record or even a diary, but to remember how…¹


 . . .A bit about Joan Didion . . .



Joan Didion

Joan Didion was born in Sacramento, CA in 1934, the daughter of an officer in the Army Air Corps. A shy, bookish child, Didion spent her teenage years typing out Ernest Hemingway stories to learn how sentences work. She attended the University of California, Berkeley where she got a degree in English and won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. The prize was a research assistant job at the magazine where Didion would work for more than a decade, eventually working her way up to an associate features editor. During this time she wrote for various other magazines and published her first novel, a tragic story about murder and betrayal, called RUN RIVER in 1963. The following year she married fellow writer John Gregory Dunne and the two moved to Los Angeles. The couple adopted a daughter whom they named Quintana Roo after the state in southern Mexico.

Didion’s first volume of essays, entitled SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM, was published in 1968 and was a collection of her feelings about the counterculture of the 1960s. The New York Times referred to it as “a rich display of some of the best prose written today in this country.” Her critically acclaimed second novel PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1970) was about a fading starlet whose dissatisfaction with Hollywood leads her further and further away from reality. Herself engaging in the Hollywood lifestyle, Didion would go on to co-write four screenplays with her husband: PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK (1971), PLAY IT AS IT LAYS (1972, based on her novel), A STAR IS BORN, (1981) and UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL (1996). A second book of essays, THE WHITE ALBUM, was published in 1979 about life in the late 1960s and the 1970s.

Throughout the years Didion has written many more essay collections on subjects that have swayed her. Her fascination with America’s relations with its southern neighbors could be seen in SALVADOR (1983) and MIAMI (1987). POLITICAL FICTIONS (2001) focuses on her thoughts on American politics and government. Didion and her family moved back to New York in the 1980s, and her observations of the city can be read in AFTER HENRY (1992). She reflects on California’s past and present in her 2003 collection WHERE I WAS FROM.

Joan Didion’s husband died in 2003. Didion wrote about the grief she felt at Dunne’s death in THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (2005). The book has been called “a masterpiece of two genres: memoir and investigative journalism,” and won the National Book Award in 2005. Sadly, also in 2005, Didion lost Quintana Roo to acute pancreatitis. Didion wrote a memoir about the loss of her daughter called BLUE NIGHTS, which was published in 2011.

Didion’s work, which has been associated with the “New Journalism” movement, has been recognized on many occasions. She received the American Academy of Arts & Letters Gold Medal in Criticism and Belles Letters in 2005 and won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2007. She is a member of the Academy of Arts & Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and The Berkeley Fellows. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Harvard University in 2009 and an honorary degree from Yale in 2011.  In 2013, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Obama, and the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. (Joan Didion official website)


Exploring the diaries of famous people

After reading Didion’s work, let’s take a peek at pages from some fabulous journals. Do any of them strike you in particular?



One of the prolific notebooks of Lewis and Clark. (Photo Library of Congress)



One of Marie Curie’s journals


Frida Kahlo’s art journal (photo from Banco de Mexico)



A Journal of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe



A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe is a faction account of the year of the Great Plague. This is the Penguin Edition.



“Bring out your dead! The ceaseless chant of doom echoed through a city of emptied streets and filled grave pits. For this was London in the year of 1665, the Year of the Great Plague … In 1721, when the Black Death again threatened the European Continent, Daniel Defoe wrote “A Journal of the Plague Year” to alert an indifferent populace to the horror that was almost upon them. Through the eyes of a saddler who had chosen to remain while multitudes fled, the master realist vividly depicted a plague-stricken city. He re-enacted the terror of a helpless people caught in a tragedy they could not comprehend: the weak preying on the dying, the strong administering to the sick, the sinful orgies of the cynical, the quiet faith of the pious. With dramatic insight he captured for all time the death throes of a great city.”

— Back cover of the New American Library version of “A Journal of the Plague Year”; Signet Classic, 1960

Daniel DeFoe, writer, journalist, tradesman, pamphleteer and spy.


From the Penguin Classics Edition:

“Defoe’s account of the bubonic plague that swept London in 1665 remains as vivid as it is harrowing. Based on Defoe’s own childhood memories and prodigious research, A Journal of the Plague Year walks the line between fiction, history, and reportage. In meticulous and unsentimental detail it renders the daily life of a city under siege; the often gruesome medical precautions and practices of the time; the mass panics of a frightened citizenry; and the solitary travails of Defoe’s narrator, a man who decides to remain in the city through it all, chronicling the course of events with an unwavering eye. Defoe’s Journal remains perhaps the greatest account of a natural disaster ever written.”   Read an excerpt from Defoe’s memorable account HERE.



Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel




“Here are the remarkable surviving letters of Galileo’s daughter Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun.

Moving between Galileo’s grand public life and Maria Celeste’s sequestered world, the author Dava Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity’s perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years’ War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo’s Daughter is an unforgettable story.”

Activity: Compare and contrast the plague as viewed by the narrator in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Suor Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun in the order of the Poor Clares in Italy, in Galileo’s Daughter.  How do the perspectives differ? What are the similarities?

Obviously there are so many excellent, publicly-available journals, diaries and first person authentic accounts that only a few have been mentioned here; it’s simply our hope that this will serve as a springboard to your own journal keeping and into reading and appreciating the daily routines and inner thoughts of other artists, authors, explorers, and others who lived in another time or place.








²From the Grapevine, Famous People Who Kept Journals