This regular feature on BIP altered during the past year; my favourite on-the-move notebook sprouted a layer of dust because now that I’m consistently sitting at my desk, I often choose to key my notes directly rather than handwrite.

For rereading, I still appreciate handwritten notes; that way, I’m not tempted to look back in my file to see what passages and phrases I’ve noted from a previous reading. Once I’m finished rereading, and ready to type in the parts of the story that I’ve flagged, I look back and mark the repeated passages with an asterisk, and I reflect on what has changed and what hasn’t.

Alongside, there’s a glimpse of my notebook for a reread of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—one of those books I’ve read a countless number of times, because I discovered it when I was eleven, before I thought of writing down all the books I read. (It’s not the only handwritten set of notes from 2020, but it’s the only set in my favourite notebook. Does everyone have a favourite notebook?)

Last year I reread all of Betty Smith’s novels, with an eye to writing about how important they were to me as a young reader and wanna-be writer, for Vol1Brooklyn. The only fresh read for my project was the book which occasioned it, Harper Collins’ fresh reprint of Tomorrow Will Be Better. (And Valerie Raleigh Yow’s biography, which is obviously of interest to any dedicated Betty Smith reader, but would also be of interest to those who enjoy women’s writing in the years surrounding and following WWII.)

In many ways, however, when I returned to Joy in the Morning and Maggie-Now, I felt like they were fresh reads. Particularly Maggie-Now, because I’m sure I would have been rather bored as a girl, by the lengthy preamble, the journey back to Ireland, the long process of building a life in Brooklyn, not only for the main characters but for their ancestors. Likely I skimmed, even flipped, through these pages.

When I was a kid, I wanted to stay firmly rooted in a single voice and time, unless the “other time” involved moving through a mirror or a wardrobe or a staircase or—I had opinions, and they didn’t always make sense.

The essay that grew out of these reading experiences with Betty Smith’s fiction would have been quite different if I’d included all my favourite passages about books (I did squeeze in a couple). Like this one, about Francie, from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn:

“From that time on, the world was hers for the reading. She would never be lonely again, never miss the lack of intimate friends. Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came into adolescence and when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone she could read a biography. On that day when she first knew she could read, she made a vow to read one book a day as long as she lived.”

Annie, in Joy in the Morning, loves the library and books as much as Francie does. She declares to her newlywed husband: “Now, you let me be, Carl. Some people do crossword puzzles. I do books.”

She went from room to room, floor to floor, stack to stack, reveling in books, books, books. She loved books. She loved them with her senses and her intellect. The way they smelled and looked; the way they felt in her hands, the way the pages seemed murmur as she turned them. Everything there is in the world, she thought, is in books.”

The pleasures of Maggie-Now lie elsewhere, in the vibrant nature of the community (which is diverse and complex, as a reflection of reality, not out of a performative desire to prove her inclusivity) and the development of a small cast of independent and determined characters. “A girl on Maggie-Now’s block in Brooklyn had an aunt who was young and blonde and laughed a lot and smelled like sweet, sticky candy. Aunt Henrietta, now, was old and withered and smelled like a plant that was dead but still standing in the dirt of the flower pot.”

What Tomorrow Will Be Better does is illustrate a different angle on working-class characters than that observed in the other novels: “They were worn out, beaten down. They had to conserve themselves each nonworking moment in order to replenish their strength for the next day’s work. And their killing work brought them nothing except enough rest and food to enable them to work. Time did not march on with them; it went around in a circle. They lived on memories of the hopes they had had as young men and on some lucky break in the future that would release them from a hard life. For the moment, nothing mattered to them except the throbbing feeling of rest.”

I got into the habit of taking my favourite notebook with me when I was on the move. It’s a nice size, a little too big to fit into a pocket, but not-so big that I was discouraged from carrying it. Now that I am not on the move very often (and never with a notebook in tow), I will need to make a point of spending time with my favourite pages.

What book and notebook habits have been changing for you?