In Which I Discover I Have the Same Notebook as Miss R in Peter Stothard’s “The Senecans”

senecans-stothard-51dv9clhtalI am  behind on book blogging, as some of you may have noticed, whether because of the recent trip to London or the waning of light–who knows?  And I am also behind on reading new books.  (I do intend to read one a week.).  Right now I am in the midlle of Peter Stothard’s engrossing book, The Senecans:  Four Men and Margaret Thatcher.

Stothard, a former editor of the Times Literary Supplement and The London Times, is not only a journalist but also an Oxford-educated classicist who has written two other  brilliant books, Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra and On the Spartacus Road. I come to this book through my love of classics, but many will be drawn to the history and politics.  In this gracefully-written memoir,  he recounts his fascination with Nero and Seneca and compares Thatcher to Nero and at least one of her advisors to  Seneca.  (As a young editor at the Times, he met with them regularly.)

The catalyst for the book is, in part, a series of interviews by a Miss R., a young historian researching the Thatcher era.  She questions Stothard about his journalistic relationships with Thatcher and her advisors Stothard’s prose is always sharp, observant, and often lyrical. (More about this next week.)

He is also witty and often very funny.  I burst out laughing when Miss R. shows up at Stothard’s office with a new notebook labelled Seneca..

When Miss R arrives today she is most pleased by her own notebook, smug I would say but don’t.  This is not a new electronic device.  She holds it so that I can see the printed name, with a stamp from Foyles bookshop, SENECA, its cover page orange and the next place lemon, both colours faintly silvered.  The printed letters of the name are blue-black, the colour of her nail varnish.  SENECA belongs to one of the bookseller’s SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT.

I have the same notebook!  Well, almost.

I couldn’t seem to get out of  Foyles. I bought two  of these small School of Life notebooks. Why?  They remind me of the blue books we wrote exams in. (I always liked the look of those blue books.)

I didn’t find Miss R’s Seneca notebook, but I have Heidigger and Caulfield.

I love notebooks.  I have so many.

Here are some other notebooks I have loved:

The Semikolon notebooks are a tiny bit bigger than the School of Life.  They also fit in a purse.  I used the purple when I tutored a Greek student.  And I took notes in the orange notebook during my mother’s hospitalization a few years ago: “She seemed depressed today.  She didn’t want to cooperate with the PT.  She stopped in the hall after about 10 feet and said she wanted to rest.  The PT said, “Two more rooms and we can rest, okay?”)

I love the paperback Apica notebooks.  The “Ideas for blog” notebook had a a few ideas for a blog, then turned into a bicycling journal.

I used the Miquelius 4 notebook to prep for an adult ed Latin class a few years ago.  (I am teaching indirect statement–which you can see if you can read my indecipherable writing.  And if you can read it, I’ll give you a free book.)  The smaller one is full of lists.

I have so many notebooks.  Too many notebooks.  What is your favorite notebook (if there is a brand)?

The Art of Taking Notes: Just Write Everything Down!

Rosalind Russell doesn't have time to take off her hat when she's typing her notes in "The Front Page."

In “The Front Page,” ace reporter Rosalind Russell doesn’t even take off her hat when she’s typing.

There is an art of taking notes. Simply Write Everything Down.

It is not the best secret, but it is mine. How will I know what I want to remember later?  And so I have been known to scribble down entire lectures by favorite professors, quotes from Oprah, and intros to music on public radio.  (I had forgotten all about Santana, hadn’t you?)   I am your go-to person if you want to know what  Professor X said in 1980 about eye disease in Aristophanes’ comedies.  (He was making a joke about the prevalence of eye infections and myopia in Greek comedy, but then decided it would make a good article.  Did he ever write it?)  Kelsey Grammer told Oprah how much he loved Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath during one of her book club sessions.  Alas, I fear I’ve thrown out the notes about the reunion of Oprah and Jonathan Franzen.


A pile of notebooks.

When I worked as a freelance writer, I interviewed chefs, fly fishermen, and dancers.  If you’re an outline person and you’re interviewing someone fascinating, you won’t go far.   Try writing A, a1, a2, B, b1 when you’re trying to understand the mad art of fly tying. I had to explain I couldn’t thread a needle or I’d still be sitting on that stool trying to figure out how to use a bobbin.

You’ll want to catch every word when the poet James Dickey is bored on a book tour. He’s trying to draw you out because he’s already given this interview to ten other reporters, and you’re trying to talk about his 683-page experimental novel, Alnilam, which you have not finished because the editor gave it to you yesterday.  (You can read my interview with Dickey here.)  When he focuses on the book, you want to record every word.   I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the following gems:

One of the things I wanted most to do with this book is to restore the true sense of flight. I just came up here on an airline, but being on an airline is like being in a hotel at 35,000 feet. Man has been capable of true flight for less than 100 years, and these frail little trainers (planes) that these boys are in give the body the true sense of being caged in the air.


My Chinese diary!

Do I take notes now?  Yes, eclectically.  It’s a pity I don’t take notes on my reading, because it would make blogging easier.  But blogging is fun!  That is my motto.  I’m not going to take notes for fun.

Still, I do take notes eclectically in my many notebooks.   See this adorable leather and silk diary I bought at Things and Things and Things in Iowa City when I was 20?   I scribbled down quotes from Anna Karenina.  I felt a great affection for Levin, a landowner who is devastated when  Kitty rejects his proposal.

“Yes, there is certainly something objectionable and repellant about me,” thought Levin after leaving the Shcherbatskys, as he walked toward his brother’s lodgings. “I do not get on with other people.  They say it is pride!  If I had any pride, I should not have put myself into this position.”

I put aside a Brazilian modernist novel, Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, when I flew to London last fall.  When I returned, I had to make a long list of characters because I couldn’t keep their names straight.   Why is everybody called Colonel, I wondered..  (It’s a courtesy title:  corrupt landowners,  politicians, and other rich thugs are neither military nor quite respectable.  A stunning novel, but hard to write about it when you’re on the four-months-between-start-and-finish plan.


Good luck with reading this!

When I traveled to London last fall, I took two notebooks:  one for lists and one for a diary. Loved the trip, but there were some hitches coming back.  Naturally I wrote it up at the Chicago airport (in colored pens from Paperchase).

A horrid trip back.  It went smoothly, but in Chicago I was patted down because I moved during the complete body scan.

Such humiliation.  Shoes already off.  Coat and bag in bin.  It was  too much after all the standing in line, nothing clearly marked, no ropes to mark off lanes…  I have to say they’re more organized in London.


The London Lists and Diary

And so there they are!  Notes and notebooks, for all the good they’ll do me.  But they give me a sense of accomplishment.

Do you have a note-taking system? Hundreds of notebooks?  Special lucky pens? Comments are open for this post!

Notebooks vs. Leatherette Diaries & E-books vs. Real Books

One of these notebooks will go to London.

One of these notebooks will go to London.

I am planning my trip to London.

Two carry-on bags.

And a notebook.

I have a laid-back approach to vacations. I pretend I’m in a cottage, whether I’m in the country or a city.  I get up late, go to the breakfast buffet or a cafe, drink a dozen cups of coffee, hold the map upside down for a while, scrawl notes on when to turn left and right, and then go out.  I do not have a strict schedule.  I might feel like a tour; I might feel like shopping.  Then I go to a coffeeshop and that’s it for the day.

I do have one event planned.  I bought a ticket to see Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. If I feel up to going (if the sun is shining…if I feel like taking the train), it will be exactly like “The Amazing Race”: I must take a train, then find my way around Oxford (by walking, bus, or a taxi; I’ll have to Google it), then take notes if I’m not too frazzled, and afterwards take a “tour-ette” (possibly guided) of Oxford. Do the students and dons still wear robes? No?  I’d love them to look like Dorothy Sayers or Evelyn Waugh, but  possibly they look more like Hugh Laurie or Rebecca Mead, author of the book I’m reading, My Life in Middlemarch.

Fortunately the train service is excellent between London and Oxford.

There are other writers I’d like to hear at the festival, but they’re all there on different days, so I regret I’ll have to pass:  Still, if you want to, you can hear Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Man Booker Prize winner; Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, interviewing a writer I’ve never heard of; Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel winner, whose novel Snow I really loved;, and Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries and winner of the Man Booker Prize.

I have a long list of things to do in London.

Too many things.

But what notebook should I take?

I love to write about my vacations.

See the blue Apica paperback notebook labeled “Ideas for Blog”?  Apparently I had no ideas for blog. I took a few notes when I went to Bess Streeter Aldrich’s house in Elmwood, Nebraska.  (Her piano came on a steamboat and she embroidered her own luncheon cloths.)  But what on earth did I mean by Fish Tank, The Third Man, Mother, Fallen Angels, Old Boy, & Mary & Max?

See the orange leatherette notebook?  I bought it at Target while my husband was browsing in the sports equipment department.  I love the magnetic snap:  Close the notebook and you hear that wonderful noise. But it’s more a diary than a note-taking notebook.

Next up:  A natty Miquelerius spiral, but perhaps too big for my purse.

Last one:  an orange paperback Moleskine.  Smallish, and except for a few notes on Swann’s Way, it’s empty.

Actually it’s between the Moleskine and the Apica.

And now:  e-books vs. real books.

Harlot High and Low BalzacHere we are in 2014.

And I miss books.

I used to order print-on-demand books if my Mrs. Oliphant or George Meredith weren’t available used.

Now I buy e-books, or get them from

I miss real books.

I was looking at my Balzac collection.

“Do we have A Harlot High and Low?”  If I remember correctly, this is better than Zola’s Nana, which I’ve just finished.

“I took notes in it,” my husband said.

He was a notorious note-taker in college–my advisor once told me he was the best student they’d had in 10 years:  they were shocked he didn’t go on for a Ph.D.–and the pages are covered with notes.

I simply can’t read a book with highlightings and scrawlings.

On the occasions when I took notes in class, I wrote in a notebook.

I have to buy another copy, right?  And I want a paperback.   I read everything  for months on my e-reader and then suddenly need a real book.

E-books or books?  Which do you prefer?