waste books

How to Waste a Notebook: The Waste Books of Lichtenberg

I’ve been keeping notebooks since I was 14 years-old. These aren’t diaries or journals, just the workaday jottings of stray thoughts and “brilliant” notions, occasional phone numbers and grocery lists of the past 26 years.
Here are some of them:

Originally, my preferred notebook was a 4×6-inch spiral-bound (side not top) Mead, which would fit in the breast pocket of a secondhand blazer, or the rear pocket of my jeans, or really any pocket when shoplifting Tuttle’s Drugstore. When I went pro in the mid-90s, I upgraded to Portage brand Reporter’s Notebook because they were supplied free of charge by my newspaper and, most importantly, they conferred the air of professionality I so direly craved.

Somewhere between 14 and 24, during my fourth shot at English 1A in community college, I was turned onto Joan Didion’s essay On Keeping a Notebook. The classic essay, which described “Keepers of private notebooks [as a] a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss,” ennobled the habit and made me a confirmed lifer. Since then, I’ve been scrupulous about keeping every notebook in which I’ve ever scribbled, for better or worse (mostly worse, given the amount of times I’ve moved in my life and have had to lug around the growing collection of wooden wine crates that is their home).

Until last month, Didion was my only heroine when it came to keeping notebooks. In fact, every Fall, I enjoy I surge in web traffic for the keyword string “Joan Didion On Keeping a Notebook,” presumably by students also in English 1A looking for an online cheat sheet (I chide them and send them along to Amazon). Last month, however, I chanced upon The Waste Books by 18th century German polymath Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

Containing thousands of aphoristic notes, Lichtenberg’s books read like clippings from newspaper horoscopes, fortune cookie fortunes and one-liners commingling with trenchant observations about the human condition and the existential peccadilloes with which it’s fraught. So, why call these gems The Waste Books?

In his student days he began the lifelong practice of recording his thoughts, observations and reminders in notebooks that he called Sudelbücher after the “waste books” in which English business houses of the time entered transactions temporarily until they could be recorded in formal account books. – Scientific American


In some ways, Lichtenberg is the spiritual godfather of microblogging – from Twitter to the digital scrapbooking on Tumblr and its ilk, Lichtenberg’s recorded observations read like memento mori for his muse. As R.J. Hollingdale observed in his introduction to a New York Review Books edition:

“The contents of these notebooks are very heterogeneous: a single page can include aphorisms, scientific jottings and sketches, linguistic experiments, phrases that have struck the writer and appealed to him, notes for future work, dates to be remembered, titles of books to be purchased; what the Sudelbücher are not, however, are diaries…”

Indeed, as Lichtenberg himself observed, “I have jotted down a host of little thoughts and sketches, but they are awaiting not so much a final revision as a few more glimpses of the sun that will make them blossom.”


“An auction at which people bid with things other than money, e.g. books.”

“If, as Leibniz has prophesied, libraries one day become cities, there will still be dark and dismal streets and alleyways as there are now.”

“We have often the thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world.”

Lichtenberg also invents similes that anticipate Raymond Chandler by 150 years: “He moved as slowly as an hour-hand in a crowd of second-hands.”

Often his quotes will seem to have a prescient sense of relevance, like this bit, which could stand as a contemporary indictment against the film industry: “All we really have are transplanters of novels and comedies. Few are raised from seed.”

And sometimes version of his notions show up in film, like this bit which reminds me of a scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan: “A handful of soldiers is always better than a mouthful of arguments.”

Occasionally, Lichtenberg seems to be wandering down a blind path, which, inevitably leads to a real showstopper of a perception:

“It thunders, howls, roars, hisses, whistles, blusters, hums, growls, rumbles, squeaks, groans, sings, crackles, cracks, rattles, flickers, clicks, snarls, tumbles, whimpers, whines, rustles, murmurs, crashes, clucks, to gurgle, tinkles, blows, snores, claps, to lisp, to cough, it boils, to scream, to weep, to sob, to croak, to stutter, to lisp, to coo, to breathe, to clash, to bleat, to neigh, to grumble, to scrape, to bubble. These words, and others like them, which express sounds are more than mere symbols: they are a kind of hieroglyphics for the ear.”

And yes, he repeated “to lisp.” Inasmuch as Lichtenberg riffed on onomatopoeia as hieroglyphics for the ear, having thumbed through some of my own waste books I’m reminded that my handwriting is apparently its own kind of hieroglyphics. Someday, I might set upon decoding this private graffitti. Who knows, I might find a gem. Or as Lichtenberg wrote: “The thoughts written on the walls of madhouses by their inmates might be worth publicizing.”

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5 responses to “How to Waste a Notebook: The Waste Books of Lichtenberg”

  1. […] observations, reminders, and the occasional aphorism. He referred to these notebooks as “waste books” after the books that businesses used to record transactions until they were formally […]

  2. […] observations, reminders, and the occasional aphorism. He referred to these notebooks as “waste books” after the books that businesses used to record transactions until they were formally […]

  3. […] observations, reminders, and the occasional aphorism. He referred to these notebooks as “waste books” after the books that businesses used to record transactions until they were formally […]

  4. Hello Daedalus,
    Though this post is about 11 years old, I’m curious as to whether you still are keeping notebooks in the same fashion? And if so, how have you found taking the “jottings of stray thoughts” into a tangible “entity” that is put out into the world? Have you ever found that you just know you wrote something down but it is lost in the abyss of pages? As I have also kept notebooks in a similar way, but these are some of the pain points that I have experienced along the way.

    1. Yes, I am. Usually, Portage brand Reporters Notebooks. But I also use a phone app for notes, which I organize by hashtag, etc., so it’s a bit hybrid now. And yes, “tangible entities” still tumble out, mostly columns and the occasional movie (which are so iterative that taking good notes is half the battle, particularly in post-production). DH

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