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Francis Bacon & Joan Didion


bacon175.png FRANCIS BACON
The Advancement of Learning, 1605

The custody or retaining of knowledge is either in writing or memory; whereof writing hath two parts: the nature of the character, and the order of the entry. For the disposition and collocation of that knowledge which we preserve in writing, it consisteth in a good digest of commonplaces, wherein I am not ignorant of the prejudice imputed to the use of commonplace books, as causing a retardation of reading, and some sloth or relaxation of memory. But because it is but a counterfeit thing in knowledges to be forward and pregnant, except a man be deep and full, I hold the entry of commonplaces to be a matter of great use and essence in studying, as that which assureth “copia” of invention and contracteth judgment to a strength. But this is true, that of the methods of commonplaces that I have seen there is none of any sufficient worth; all of them carrying merely the face of a school and not of a world—and referring to vulgar matters and pedantical divisions, without all life, or respect to action. For the other principal part of the custody of knowledge, which is memory, I find that faculty in my judgment weakly inquired of. And therefore I make no more estimation of repeating a great number of names or words upon once hearing, or the pouring forth of a number of verses or rhymes extempore, or the making of a satirical simile of everything, or the turning of everything to a jest, or the falsifying or contradicting of everything by cavil, or the like, (whereof in the faculties of the mind there is great “copia,” and such as by device and practice may be exalted to an extreme degree of wonder), than I do of the tricks of tumblers, funambuloes, baladines; the one being the same in the mind that the other is in the body, matters of strangeness without worthiness.

didion175.png JOAN DIDION
“On Keeping a Notebook,” 1966

How it felt to me: that is getting closer to the truth about a notebook. I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there: dialog overheard in hotels and elevators and at the hat-check counter in Pavillon (one middle-aged man shows his hat check to another and says, “That’s my old football number”); impressions of Bettina Aptheker and Benjamin Sonnenberg and Teddy (“Mr. Acapulco”) Stauffer; careful aperçus about tennis bums and failed fashion models and Greek shipping heiresses, one of whom taught me a significant lesson (a lesson I could have learned from F. Scott Fitzgerald, but perhaps we all must meet the very rich for ourselves) by asking, when I arrived to interview her in her orchid-filled sitting room on the second day of a paralyzing New York blizzard, whether it was snowing outside. I imagine, in other words, that the notebook is about other people. But of course it is not. I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check counter in Pavillon; in fact I suspect that the line “That’s my old football number” touched not my own imagination at all, but merely some memory of something once read, probably “The Eighty-Yard Run.” My stake is always, of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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