Geoffrey O’Brien, a longstanding contributor to The New York Review of Books, has chosen this collection of six NYRB Classics, now available at a special discount.
Waste Books by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Notebooks by Joseph Joubert
Memoirs from Beyond the Grave by Francois-René de Chateaubriand
Pages from the Goncourt Journals by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla
The Journal 1837-1861 by Henry David Thoreau
Monumental works are built sometimes by small accretions, daily or sporadic jottings, tallies of passing phenomena and minor social scenes that would otherwise quickly evaporate. The smallest increments can take on epic proportions. In the heterogeneous notebooks that he called his Waste Books, the 18th-century scientist and mathematician Georg Christoph Lichtenberg could depict a character in a sentence, demolish a philosophical outlook in a joke, and describe his world in the lightning flashes of a fiercely perceptive and skeptical mind. The 19th-century French writer Joseph Joubert likewise, in the unpublished Notebooks that he kept up for most of his life, chose the most compressed forms to capture his daring intuitions in isolated and startlingly modern phrases whose grace is fully captured by Paul Auster’s translation. Joubert kept his writing secret; his friend and admirer François-René de Chateaubriand was by contrast one of the most visible people of his age, as prolific writer, diplomat, and public thinker. His greatest work, however, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, “composed at different dates and in different countries,” was not meant to be published during his life—although financial need dictated otherwise. Alex Andriesse’s translation of the first twelve books of this vast work, describing vicissitudes of revolution and exile, reveals a masterpiece of historical narrative and tumultuous self-portraiture. A subsequent era of French cultural life is charted in the incomparably observant and waspish journals of the brothers Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, in which they train their mercilessly precise eyes on the political, literary, and artistic worlds of the Second Empire. Pages from the Goncourt Journals offer gossip of the highest order, such as a first-hand account of dinner at Flaubert’s with Zola and Daudet. A more self-consciously provincial world passes in parade in Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, an extraordinary work based on diaries kept in 1918–1919, enriched and elaborated over decades before the book was published in 1966. Its evocation of daily life in Barcelona is irresistibly absorbing. Another still underappreciated lifework is Henry David Thoreau’s journal, written daily for the last 24 years of his short life. In The Journal 1837–1861, Damion Searls’ comprehensive selection from this multivolume work suggests its depth and range, its exploration of the natural history of his environment, its restless speculations on language and philosophy, its continual bursts of ecstatic appreciation: “There is a prairie beyond your laws. Nature is a prairie for outlaws.”