It isn’t news that the experiences a writer undergoes and commits to memory, or notes down in a diary, serve as trampolines for their writing. If they choose to turn to fiction, writers have to be able to fling themselves high enough from the surface of the experience to gain distance, perspective, and the real benefits and pleasures of imagination. Should they choose to reproduce their diary entries, however, they risk coming off as self-indulgent.
Amitava Kumar’s The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journal could have easily become an example of the latter, but not one page feels irrelevant. The entries are mostly untitled and undated. The sentences and the events they describe, however, take you back in memory, to settle you into the same time and space you had inhabited when he was journaling, continents away.
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The book has been described as a writer’s engagement with the pandemic, a global event that united people across countries in the sudden similarities of their everyday experience: the ghostly quiet of once-bustling cities, the isolation and the distances, the anxiety of mulling constantly over mortality.
Kumar writes about all this and more. He writes about teaching, about writing itself, about reading, remembering, consuming the news—all at such an unsettling time. He talks about how drawing and painting became meditative ways of journaling, of coping, and about the very decision of printing these visual entries. Kumar is someone we can relate to, someone who reaches out for advice, guidance and feedback from friends and peers, like most of us do. The book proceeds in quick snatches. You could start reading, really, from any page you open at random. It’s the first reason this collection of journal entries works. Had he dwelt at length on any given day and his thoughts at the time, narrativising it into a many-paged thesis, the book would have slipped along the slope of self-indulgence.
It doesn’t. The visual entries work in his favour, too—a break from words, giving us a poignant or endearing image that turns our eye to the smaller, quieter details of our lives. It’s the kind of observation we tend towards in periods of isolation—whether during a pandemic, a writer’s residency, or daydreaming on a balcony.
There’s a sense of timelessness, mostly because he straight-fiddles with the kernel of the thought specific to a certain day, that specific entry. On one page, Kumar quotes friend and writer Ian Jack’s missive about thoughts on writing: “…a writer’s intention and a reader’s inference are different things and the subconscious is at work in each,” Jack tells Kumar. This is, unwittingly, a comment on the other big reason this book does well.
Kumar’s curated journal entries give space for the subconscious to breathe and play. There are phrases to suggest that he had, over the last few years at least, perhaps built on his habit of diary-keeping with the conscious attempt to publish. It is clear that he writes for a reader. But which journal entry isn’t written for a reader, even if the eventual reader is the author himself, changed by time?
Even if we write merely to vent, or as therapy—both great reasons—when we revisit our notes, a week, a year or a decade later, we are the new readers of our log of thoughts. Sometimes, we cringe at ourselves, sometimes we learn from ourselves; if we are lucky, the revisiting is pleasant. This is why, for a journal entry to bear some semblance to literature, it requires clarity of, and in, its present moment. Or, for lack of a better phrase, it ought to be a report with comment, to oneself. With The Blue Book, Kumar has done just this.
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