Theroux’s ‘The Journal Keeper’ celebrates the examined life
Memoir is an ode to the journal at its best – as literary and psychological helpmate, as a “flashlight” for self-discovery and as “a place to save small places of beauty.”
by Pamela Miller
I ran across this book in an unusual way. Near the end of a packed flight to Atlanta, my seatmate, a lovely woman in her 60s, and I got to talking about newspapers (my living) and books (hers). As we deplaned, I expressed regret that we hadn’t started chatting earlier. As if to provide her half of that lost conversation, she pulled a book — her brand new book — out of her purse and pressed it on me as a gift.
She was Phyllis Theroux, a writer and teacher from Ashland, Va., and the book was “The Journal Keeper: A Memoir” (Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pages, $24). When I finished reading it, I had marked more than 20 passages that I wanted to return to, or even copy out into my own journal.
To create this book, Theroux went back through several years’ worth of her journals, starting in 2001, and excerpted her best thoughts and stories, the epiphanies from what her revered Emerson would approvingly call a well-examined life. By themselves, those impressions are bookmark-worthy; together, they tell the story of an interesting woman of a certain age — hearing less and less from grown children who live far away, caring for aged parents (Theroux’s mother, who lived with her during her final years, is a captivating character) and coming into a kind of early elderdom where, despite the inevitability of aging, almost anything is possible if you’re blessed with reasonably good health — peace, travel, the best friendships, even romantic love.
Theroux, who in a wise afterword cautions would-be journal writers that being honest does not mean telling everything about everybody — is not one for platitudes. She writes frankly of her doubts, fears, vanities, of her “failure to be consistently generous.” Occasionally she has footnoted the excerpts with wry, abashed explanations written later.