Our Reading Lives

How My Reading Journal Accidentally Became A Plague Diary

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Zoe Robertson

Staff Writer

Zoe Robertson is a horror fiction writer and lover of bizarre books, literature in translation, and vampires.

At the turn of the new year, I decided to invest in a modest Moleskine journal and told myself that I would document my most comprehensive, most astute thoughts about the books I finished in 2020. It was going to be great! I was already fatigued from staring at computer screens all day while researching for my degree, and looking to begin a stilted, messy breakup from Goodreads, so believed that reviving my teenage diary-keeping hobby would not only give me space to process my thoughts without a character limit or the embarrassment of being public, but give me a reason to avoid laptops (and inevitable doomscrolling). 

My journal is nothing fancy; I don’t have any washi tape, stickers, or elaborate charts. I opted for basic bullet points covering some publishing information and any brief comments, funny observations, or crushing remarks on whatever random book comes my way. If anything, this bare bones approach has allowed me to fulfill my fantasies of keeping a nondescript, mysterious black notebook in the kitchen, packed with hastily scrawled notes, and have briefly imagined myself as a cloistered scholar of forbidden knowledge…when, in reality, I am just tallying up my stats each month for nobody’s eyes but my own. In reality, it isn’t a brooding mad scientist journal, but a plain stack of paper full of middling reviews.

Or, at least, that was the plan. 

I keep going back to an entry I made in March, in which I’m reflecting on Max Tegmark’s nonfiction manifesto about the future of technology and artificial intelligence, Life 3.0. I was frustrated by this book overall and found his insistence on the dangers of anthropomorphising to be unimaginative at best, suggestive of a larger issue regarding subjectivity at worst. In uncharacteristically steady hand-writing, I bitterly mused:

‘I think it’s interesting to read a nonfiction book which imagines a vaguely sanitised and luxurious future full of intelligent robots when the present day flounders with the failure of government officials and rising threats of misinformation […] Those in control don’t want to anthropomorphise the mortality rate. The people with underlying health issues. People with disabilities or immigrants. The working class. Cos [sic] that means admitting ignorance, carelessness – that thinking about us is too hard, too annoying.’

Thinking back to reading this book and writing this entry sends a chill through me, initially because of the early date (March 13, ten days before lockdown began in the UK) but moreso because of the content’s theme: a pressing concern regarding threats to subjectivity and the systemic suppression of marginalised people into further obscurity, by a flustered elite, whilst in the midst of an unprecedented event. The dilution or erasure of the human element of this pandemic has continued to such an extent that case figures barely make the trending page on Twitter anymore, that general complacency reigns in public spaces, that large numbers of protestors and police brutality victims were reduced to aimless mobs by the media. Dehumanisation works in two ways – either your subjectivity becomes erased into insignificance and invisibility through lack of representation or you are absorbed into an impossible mass that is just as nameless, faceless, and easy to tar with a hateful brush. 

As time has progressed, the pages of this little thing have been filled with doodles, drafts of comic strip dialogue, transcripts of voice messages I’ve sent people, intermittent personal paragraphs about the state of my Masters degree or news bulletins. There are even metatextual winks and nods at an imaginary peruser, as though I’m chatting directly to someone else, someone in the future, no longer just to myself. It suggests that I’ve imagined a scenario in which this journal is all that’s left of my past life before I disappear into the woods, or will be my sole companion during an apocalyptic societal collapse, as if I’m carrying around my own expositional flavour text for a bandit to loot from my body if things take a turn for the RPG. On the surface, the contents remains the same: the title of a book, a dated entry detailing my opinions, a star rating. However, between the lines, I’m desperately emphasising my subjectivity amongst the rampant dehumanising movement of the world around me. 

This shouldn’t be surprising; for the majority of lockdown I had no other companion except myself and the books I had on my shelf. I lived alone, I was – and remain – unemployed, most of my friends scattered to the winds to escape to their homes and quarantine with family. We still communicate over the internet, but I didn’t expect the quiet unravelling that being physically alone had on me. When separated from everyday frames of reference, whether that be advertisements or just the presence of other people, I was left with no option but to make my own in the form of this journal. I love questioning what makes us who we are, and pondering the philosophy of subjectivity, but experiencing such a drastic shift in self-perception firsthand like this was terrifying. How do you prove that you exist when you’re the only one around? 

Reflecting on this, it is clear that my journal anticipates a reader. No, begs for a reader. Begs for someone other than me to hear what it has to say, confirm that it actually happened, confirmed that I actually happened, begging for this experience to be acknowledged rather than brushed under the rug. I know that so much of the news I’ve recorded in this book will be ignored by future historians. I know that so much of this experience will be diluted in docuseries or museums and I have already grieved for the loss of information. I live in a country fueled by a selfish nationalism, that puts pride before its people, and I will be trodden on to make way for ingenuine celebration should we ever beat this disease. I watch the ways in which the reality of the present catastrophe is erased by deliberately evasive or distracting media headlines, by inconsistent political ramblings, and beg to be spared from that violence.

I don’t know when I began to treat this Moleskine like a living testament. In a sense, its flammable body is as weak and vulnerable as my own; can I really rely on something so destructible to preserve me? However, I am frankly fascinated at how my blasé choice to write down my thoughts on Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in January (which were all positive and glowing, by the way) has produced an item that has such hefty historical and social relevance to me. Like everything else this year, it was unpredictable. However, writing has always been a means to become immortal, to turn moments into crystal and amber that will endure time, so perhaps it is no wonder that I’ve leaned so heavily on the words of others and my own during this period of isolation.

It is impossible to separate the pandemic from this diary; from the chosen titles, to the frequency or infrequency of entries, the plague has even infected these very pages. However, I am inclined to believe that this act of writing and containing my thoughts is a means to cure some of its secondary effects – it combats the feeling of being dissolved in the mire of everyday horror, it confirms your existence, it speaks to a side of this Hell that is needed to understand the full scope of events. In anthropomorphising myself, in reclaiming my subjectivity, I can begin to heal from the wounds this year has dealt, from the deliberate objectification it has tried to crush me with.

I hope I’m here to reread this journal when I’m older, but, if I’m not: you don’t have to agree with my feelings on what I’ve read – that isn’t even the point of the journal – just agree that I was here to write it at all.