China Miéville on writing and on diaries

man diary Eurostar Lon-Bxl 717.JPG

“Now at last it’s time for me to start writing this second book.

The manager of my line told me, You never put anything down except to be read. Every word ever written is written to be read and if some go unread that’s only chance, failure, they’re like grubs that die without changing. He said, You’ll keep three books.

So my first is a book of numbers. It’s lists and calculations and, for efficiency, I write it using ciphers. There’s a legend I never check any more, knowing all the signs now, the single-stroke shorthands that mean kilogram and tonne, widow, printer, generation, thief, the signs for currency, shipyard, doctor, for uncertainty, the holding sign that means there’s an unknown factor here to which I’ll come back. This first book’s for everyone, though almost no one wants it or would know how to read it.

The third of my three books is for me. You’ll keep one, is what he told me, for you alone to read, in which you should write secrets. But you’ll never be sure that no one else will read them: that’s the risk and that’s how the third book works.

When he gave me that warning he held his finger up as if he was counting to one.

He said, You’ll write it not because there’s no possibility it’ll be found but because it costs too much to not write it. If you ever find someone else’s third book, it’s up to you what you do. You could read it, but you don’t have to. Nothing you’d read would be for you. If I found one, he said, what I’d do is I’d set fire to it. I wouldn’t read it and I wouldn’t give it to you.

If I got back someone’s second book, well, I’d give you that, of course: the second book’s for readers, he said.” (This Census-taker, 2017)

I enjoyed typing this out.

I thought I’d end up dot-dot-dotting to select the phrases that related to the point I wanted to make – about diary writing. But it’s so allusive, so about things that are almost there. And so present, for example in the three times the speaker, the manager of the line, whatever that is, uses italics.

In the end the centre of this quote, for me, is still the idea of the private book that It costs to much to not write it.

I write a diary; who do I write it for?

(Writing is thinking. No thought is properly thought till you’ve tried to write it down. Often, then, I discover that my pretty thought has holes in it. Is that why I write a diary?)

I love this book, as much as his The city and the city. 

(On diaries, if you haven’t already, read A life discarded by Alexander Masters.)

Now I’m thinking about that list of the things for which there are short-cuts in the census-taker’s first book.

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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