There is a monument in Göttingen market place, a university town in Lower Saxony, to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, famous for his alphabetically numbered annual notebooks, his sudelbūcher or commonplace books, admired by Wittgenstein, Freud and Nietzsche. He got as far as L before the reaper put a stop to the project.
According to Wikipedia, these notebooks contain “quotations of passages that struck Lichtenberg, titles of books to read, autobiographical sketches, and short or long reflections, including keen observations on human nature, in the manner of the 17th-century French moralists. Those reflections helped him earn his posthumous fame as one of the best aphorists in Western intellectual history. “Arthur Schopenhauer admired Lichtenberg greatly for what he had written in his notebooks. He called him one of those who “think .. for their own instruction”, who are genuine thinkers for themselves in both senses of the words”. He is also described as a great procrastinator with a lifelong ambition to write a novel like Tom Jones, which never got beyond a few pages.
He was an eighteenth century person with a less hard division between natural science and other branches of knowledge. Alien from my, technical and scientific ignorance, but otherwise a man who I am fond of and who inspires me.
I too have a large number of notebooks but not in neat alphabetical order. I have scribbled things down here and there, sometimes in creamy French notebooks, other times on rougher paper with a fine Indian cover, a dream of Bengal. A large box of notebooks where obscure facts about family history jostle with book titles, words that have attracted my attention, shopping lists, notes on translation customers and orphaned information which I take under my wing. But this trip I have drained these ancient swamps and extracted what I want to keep and now have separate books for Dorset, Uppland, German and French language, Bengal, Cooking, Plants, Greece and Rome, book titles and various political and social topics; Reluctantly, I think I have to at least partially digitalise as bearing a bag around my neck with 30 notebooks reminds of the Ancient Mariner with his albatross.
The project also has a whiff of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet but this doesn’t bother me nor am disturbed by writing as jogging rather than practising for the Olympics.
It was a good project to complete during my trip to Germany but seriously challenged my aim of travelling light. Most of my return journey went well but arriving at Arlanda was a trial where the plane parked at a distant terminal, a long trudge from the exit.
Well home and tired, I fell asleep more or less immediately fully dressed after reading a friend’s Christmas greeting describing his project of writing about ancient bench ends in a Cornish church. Chaotic dreams about what I had to do as the shards of my German and Swedish lives reached out to one another. And worse repetitive dreams about things I didn’t have to do. I woke up after a couple of hours, dehydrated from running my heater at full blast to compensate for the landlord’s refrigerator-light approach to central heating. And then footled for an hour or so emptying bags in a chaotic jumble, trying to work up a sense of progress when I found an appropriate niche for some item. The night continued with a couple of such rounds but now I’m refreshed and able to think. In a an hour or two, the shop will open and I can get something to eat as the flat’s resources consisted of two bad lemons, a tin of sardines and a bottle of alcohol-free beer. And I am struck by my own stupidity at not doing what my children would have done, to call and get food delivered.