People in my Virginia neighborhood don't gather in bookstores on Sunday nights to talk about ideas. People in certain parts of Northwest Washington do, as I discovered last weekend when I attended a discussion of The Slate Diaries at Politics & Prose, a lefty bookseller on upper Connecticut Avenue.
The Slate Diaries is just what it sounds like: a collection of diary entries compiled by Slate magazine and published in book form. (I am one of the contributors.) The people who came to discuss the book were just what you would imagine, too. The men were thin. The women had long earrings and complicated sweaters. Some had children in tow. Others, clearly, did not. Generally they were friendly but awkward, the sort of people who have read about manners, but aren't quite sure how to use them.
In other words, they were living stereotypes: Volvo-driving, sandal-wearing, NPR-listening, arms-are-for-hugging liberals. I liked them.
I liked the idea of them, anyway. It's hard to knock people who are interested in books, or even people who only pretend to be interested in books. In college, I would have mocked these sandal-wearers as phony and pretentious. The meaner part of me still does, silently. But at this point in the digital-cable-wireless-infotainment revolution, even literary pretense is a welcome improvement.
And, as it turned out, the liberals got a pretty good conversation going. They talked earnestly about what sorts of people make the most interesting diarists, about who journal-keepers believe they are writing for, and so on. Then somebody raised a particularly good, and difficult, question: Why do people keep diaries?
I've kept a journal on and off since the sixth grade, and I couldn't say why, even to myself. In fact -- and I hate to admit this for what it says about me -- until I stopped into Politics & Prose, I'd never really thought about it.
Actually, I had thought about it, but not in a way that pertained to me. I've always suspected that other people who keep journals must have emotional problems. They write because they need a place to weep -- and paper never talks back. Or, worse, their journal-keeping is a way of making a grandiose statement about themselves: "I consider my life so incredibly interesting that for history's sake its details must be recorded." Either way, I figured, diarists are narcissists.
I, meanwhile, had come up with a number of less embarrassing explanations for my journal-keeping. It's a writing exercise, I said at times. It's a novel taking shape, I decided at others. On the way home from the bookstore I faced the unflattering truth: I keep a journal for the same reason people undertake any long, repetitious project: fear.
In the car the other day, my 5-year-old daughter was trying out some of her latest knock-knock jokes on me. Pretty good, I said. I used to know a lot of those. "Why don't you know them anymore?" she asked.
I gave her a lame answer (a brain is like an attic, and mine is full), which seemed to suffice for the moment. I didn't tell her about all the other things I don't know anymore: how I spent the summer of 1987, who I ate lunch with two months ago, what she and her siblings talked about on the way to the park last weekend.
The answers to these and countless other questions have been lost in the jumble of my mental attic. It's minutia, most of it, but it's what makes up my life. And it's what I record in my journal. I'm pretty sure no one will ever read any of it. I know I won't. But it's there. Which means it isn't really lost.