the waste books

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German scientist and man of letters Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was an 18th-century polymath: an experimental physicist, an astronomer, a mathematician, a practicing critic both of art and literature. Although he wrote and published a lot, he kept aside several notebooks  where he jotted down observations and aphorisms.  He numbered them by using the letters of the alphabet- all except ‘i’.  Surprisingly he never meant these to be published and therefore called them the ‘Waste Books’.

I came across the New York Review of Books edition.  It is quite amazing to discover these waste books were written in the 18th Century- they seem so relevant and contemporary.  A typical aphorism reads- “Everything in a man must move towards the same end.”  How pithily put- we must live and act by our values.

I looked at my collection of diaries and re-read some of these.  I would like to think that these are my ‘waste books’ but these contain much personal material as well as my aphorisms (see photo).  I used to feel ashamed of writing these as if it was some kind of subversive act but now having been inspired by Lichtenberg, I shall continue to do so.  Lichtenberg probably did not regard these outputs too highly, calling them ‘waste’ and he never meaning to publish them.  Yet reading them, I find them intelligent, humorous, humane and futuristic.  These waste books have become his most popular writings.

Sometimes we don’t realise the value of our thoughts and words.  For this reason, we must write everything down.  Then leave it to posterity to judge.  Did Lichtenberg the sage that he was, ever think that three centuries later, people from all over the world would be inspired by something he called waste?

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