Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Reading Schedule

We’ve developed a reading schedule; so for the next six weeks, you can follow along with the readers and discuss the same passages that they’re dissecting.

Week 1 & 2 - Ending Sunday, November 23
Finish Free Women 1 and The Notebooks
End Page - Online: 206 (UK: 229; US: 241)

Week 3 - November 23 through November 30
Free Women 2 and The Notebooks
Start page - Online: 207 (UK: 233; US: 245)
End page - Online: 292 (UK: 326; US: 351)

Week 4 - November 30 through December 7
Free Women 3 and The Notebooks
Start page - Online: 293 (UK: 329; US: 355)
End page - Online: 391 (UK: 441; US: 481)

Week 5 - December 7 through December 14
Free Women 4 and The Notebooks
Start page - Online: 392 (UK: 445; US: 485)
End page - Online: 464 (UK: 528; US: 579)

Week 6 - December 14 through December 21

The Golden Notebook and Free Women 5
Start page - Online: 465 (UK: 531; US: 583)
End page - Online 503 (UK: 576; US: 635)

Author avatar

on November 20th, 2008 at 1:08 pm

kill the puppetmaster & the revolution will come

Like Nona I have been realizing things about the way I read. I seem to fall into a manhole of attention to a recurring theme or trope and then frantically underline anything that seems to pertain to it, adding exclamation marks and red stars as I see fit, never thinking, of course, to write anything beside these underlinings that will clarify things for me when I come back to that page later. Today I looked back and here are a couple of the things I’d underlined as connected:

“He flicked the cards over, without comment, replaced them in their boxes, and remarked loudly for the benefit of the other canvassers coming in: ‘There’s real support for our policy, we’ll get our candidate in yet.’ (page 161, UK edition)


‘She saw him putting money on to a mantelpiece. But he was not - that she knew - the sort of man who would pay a woman. Yet she could see him, clearly, putting money on a mantelpiece.’ (page 189, UK paperback)

The first quote, from Anna’s Red Notebook, addresses a farcical aspect of the political process, the element of doublethink required on the part of UK communists of the 50s to contend for votes that they know they won’t get; similar to their attitude towards Stalin: ‘…we all have this need for the great man, and create him over and over again in the face of all the evidence’ (page 158) - but here, as with the second quote, and others I’ll point out in the main text, I see Lessing presenting social and political exchanges as performances - in this novel we watch people take on a stance, a role, as if compelled. And they attempt to persevere with the adopted role even when there is a conflict with their already established ‘character’…what usually follows is that uncomfortable discrepancies between people’s behaviours and Anna’s perceptions of the people themselves. So much so that the men and women in the book, whether it is Ella, Anna’s alter ego in her Blue Notebook, suddenly seeing her lover in an adversarial light once they’ve parted after a night entwined together, or Anna noticing just what a wooden cage professed political conviction can be, the characters in this book seem…controlled, for want of a better word, by duality and the single choice it offers. Man or woman, communist or capitalist, &c &c.

So that’s how I’m reading the book right now. I’m trying not to be blind to the other aspects, but, not having read this book all the way through before, I’m hearing radical whispers from almost every page that Anna is going to strain away from the puppetmaster and become socially and politically free…a free woman!

Author avatar

Helen Oyeyemi
on November 17th, 2008 at 8:09 pm

20 Years On

I’m returning to The Golden Notebook after about two decades. I first read this book in the early 1980s and loved every page of it. At the time it felt like the quintessential women’s novel to me, surprisingly timeless and endlessly relevant. I read it again over the course of that decade a couple of times, finding more in it each time, and becoming more and more intrigued by the African material and by her quite bitter critique of communism from the inside. It’s been almost 20 years since I last read the book, but the gap has not dimmed my enjoyment one bit. All the elements that resonated with me in the past are still there, but now I find myself looking at the text much more historically, and much less universally. I’m also finding myself really interested now in her writing techniques, when and where she shifts from descriptive to analytical, the way the different notebooks shape the flow, the way Lessing builds characters and makes you want to love them and hate them and sometimes shake them, and sometimes all at the same time.

Author avatar

Philippa Levine
on November 17th, 2008 at 12:27 am

What is it like to read?

Reading is a curious activity. We’ve been doing it for so long that we’ve all forgotten how strange it is. This project is reminding me.

When we read, we are being told a story, but the storyteller is not present. We cannot ask her questions. We cannot say “how, exactly, were her eyes when she cried?” We cannot say “did she really love him, or was she only pretending?” The writer must make some assumptions about what the reader wants to know and then meet them, or not meet them, subvert them, twist them, turn them, throw them in the reader’s face.

But fundamentally, it is a curious business. We read in private. When we read, even if we are in a busy cafe, we are essentially alone in our experience of reading. And yet we are with the writer. Alone and in company; both at once.

So there’s something shocking about exposing my reading. In the same way that, once, when I began workshopping, it was shocking to expose my writing. What will they think about me?, I think. What will they know about me that I don’t even know about myself? How can I put down my thoughts about a sentence or two in this book before I have read it all, chewed it over, put my analytical brain to work to make clever sentences about it?

And I wonder if maybe I am an idiot when I read. Or maybe just when I begin to read a new book. I remember when I was a four-year-old child, when I was just learning to read and could do it myself but it was still a little arduous I used to beg my mother to “break me into” a book. “Just read me the first ten pages,” I’d say, “just the first five, then I’ll do it myself.” Like training wheels. It’s hard to enter a new book; it’s like moving to a new city and not knowing your way around. Where’s the post office? Where’s the grocery store? Or, who are these characters? Why are they acting in this way? What are these things they’re talking about? Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way.

So I have some sympathy with this comment. The day after you’ve moved to a new city is not the time to be opining about its architecture or trying to sum up its inhabitants. But here we are; we are human beings and we have to start forming opinions even if only to knock them down again later. I write here about my own opinions as they come up; the moment I write them down I begin to disagree with myself. Apparently, this is how I read. Curious.

Author avatar

Naomi Alderman
on November 16th, 2008 at 6:03 pm

I’ve realized…

a little something about my reading style while participating in this project.  Some have countless lightbulb moments while they are reading a novel as rich and layered as this one.  But I spend most of my time wrapping my head around the ideas, reading the book in chunks and then coming back and commenting en masse.  In a way, it slightly betrays the “blogging” aspect of this website, which is supposedly tracking our thoughts about the book as they come. My insights stew for a couple of days, until there are 30 pages in GN that need my attention.

I’m sure it’s different, as well, for people who have read the book once and have had a chance to see the entire arc of the story.  I’m still trying to absorb the rhythm and pace of the book, and to get to know the characters.  Anna is continuously surprising me, which is why I now feel like I commented on her prematurely.  But that in itself can add to the project–if we are able to track each other’s changing expectations and interpretations.

One last note: I’ve discovered that I’m pre-programmed to focus on all of Lessing’s twists and turns having to do with gender and feminism, which is starting to annoy me.  I know there are other clear themes, and I knew when I started, but somehow I’m more attuned to the issues I’m most “expected” to notice.  I’m sure I’ll get past it–in fact I’m deliberately trying to–but it seems to be a product of the way this project has been framed; that is, seven women getting together to discuss a book written by a woman.  I think it’s important for all of us to think outside the “women writers” box.

Author avatar

Nona Willis Aronowitz
on November 16th, 2008 at 6:01 pm

Beginning The Golden Notebook

Since we launched the project this week, it’s been a thrill to see comments appear in the margins.  So far, some of my favorite moments have been:

Page 5: Harriet Rubin points out that President Elect Obama singles out The Golden Notebook as one of his favorite books.  She reflects: “When I first read The Golden Notebook in 1974, it struck me as a book about how to live powerfully as an artist, and I went looking in the shops for a golden notebook of my own. I’m still looking for it. Can we find in this novel something about what public poetry requires, what it is to speak with a voice that calls rather than commands or demands?”

Page 15: “Anna meets her friend Molly in the summer of 1957 after a separation…”  The readers begin the “Free Women” section and consider what a “free” woman really means in Lessing’s text.

Page 38: Nona Willis Aronowitz and Naomi Alderman look at the character of Richard, and on the following page, Laura Kipnis weighs in, questioning Molly and Anna’s “posture of moral superiority.”

Page 52: Readers discuss Lessing’s critique of women’s loyalties, if women really do establish warmth and intimacy with each other by pontificating about men, and Alison Bechdel.

Page 64: Laura Kipnis writes: “Lessing returns here to the theme of form vs. formlessness that she talked about in the preface; and the relations between psychoanalysis, art, unconsciousness and creativity. I find this just so interesting, and close to my own experience of writing…”

We’d like to encourage everyone to take part in the discussion.  If a reader says something that you find interesting, want to expand on, or even disagree with, you can jump over to the forum and have your say. In a recent forum post, kittent pointed out a wonderful passage from Lessing’s introduction that we had missed: ‘“Art during the Middle Ages was communal, unindividual; it came out of a group consciousness. It was without the driving painful individuality of the art of the bourgeois era. And one day we will leave behind the driving egotism of individual art. We will return to an art which will express not man’s self-divisions and separateness from his fellows but his responsibility for his fellows and his brotherhood.”

But, these are just pieces that I found engaging — what have you liked reading?

-Kathleen, if:book

Author avatar

on November 12th, 2008 at 9:46 pm

Starting Here:

This is my first read-through of The Golden Notebook. I’ve been told it is a classic feminist text, a book about a woman artist’s disillusionment with Communist Party, a book about neocolonialism, madness and more. For better or for worse, I want to try to ignore everything I’ve been told about the text and to receive it, at face value, independent of whatever political movements/ academic fields have claimed it. I’m not sure if this impulse I have to “read without an agenda” is rebellious, silly, impossible or simply coming from my stubborn sense of fairness. Mind you, as a feminist, I often enjoy looking at things through a feminist lens so setting those particular spectacles aside will be challenging!

It feels strange to be pouring over Lessing’s text so publicly! Reading is usually a very private activity for me. I often read a novel in bed, at night, with a flashlight, when everyone but my partying frat boy neighbors are asleep and quiet. I don’t usually publicly share my thoughts about a book until I’m done with it. Here, online, I find that shyness sweeps over me every time I am about to hit “send.” Especially since, as of now, we are not able to privately edit our comments once we have made them.

So far, I prefer to read my physical copy of the book. I highlight and underline phrases and jot down my two cents/visceral responses in the margins of the UK paperback. I then flesh out my ideas into full paragraphs online. I do reread sections of the novel on my computer screen to see if I can identify what my fellow readers are pointing out about a page. I’m trying not to sound too formal in my online responses. I hope my responses don’t sound like a study guide. I’m interested in sharing my reading process. I expect my ideas to evolve as I dive deeper into the book.

I wish every reader was assigned their own color and we could underline parts of the text in our signature red or blue or green. It’s all so neat online. So black and white with blue links. When I am reading a book, its physical margins become a sort of journal for me. I learn new things about myself in all the check marks, exclamation points and double underscores I add to the text. I draw little smiley or frowning faces when I am pleased or annoyed with a character. I summarize whole paragraphs with words in all caps. For example, beside one of Richard’s monologues, I wrote: GIVE ME A BREAK. That’s what’s missing for me commenting online: the rawness, the color.

That said, I’m still having fun.

Author avatar

Lenelle Moïse
on November 11th, 2008 at 3:01 pm

the origins of this project

On November 10th, The Institute for the Future of the Book kicks off an experiment in close reading. Seven women will read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and carry on a conversation in the margins. The idea for the project arose out of my experience re-reading the novel in the summer of 2007 just before Lessing won the Nobel Prize for literature. The Golden Notebook was one of the two or three most influential books of my youth and I decided I wanted to “try it on” again after so many years. It turned out to be one of the most interesting reading experiences of my life. With an interval of thirty-seven years the lens of perception was so different; things that stood out the first-time around were now of lesser importance, and entire themes i missed the first time came front and center. When I told my younger colleagues what I was reading, I was surprised that not one of them had read it, not even the ones with degrees in English literature.  It occurred to me that it would be very interesting to eavesdrop on a conversation between two readers, one under thirty, one over fifty or sixty, in which they react to the book and to each other’s reactions. And then of course I realized that we now actually have the technology to do just that. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Meade, my colleague and director of if:book London, the Arts Council England enthusiastically and generously agreed to fund the project. Chris was also the link to Doris Lessing who through her publisher HarperCollins signed on with the rights to putting the entire text of the novel online.

Fundamentally this is an experiment in how the web might be used as a space for collaborative close-reading. We don’t yet understand how to model a complex conversation in the web’s two-dimensional environment and we’re hoping this experiment will help us learn some of what we need to do to make this sort of collaboration as successful as possible. In addition to making comments in the margin, we expect that the readers will also record their reactions to the process in a group blog. In the public forum, everyone who is reading along and following the conversation to post their comments on the book and the process itself.

I’m writing you now with the hope that you will help spread the word to everyone who might be interested in following along and participating in the forum discussions.

thank you

Bob Stein

p.s.  One last note. This is not essentially an experiment in online reading itself.  Although the online version of the text is quite readable, for now, we believe books made of paper still have a substantial advantage over the screen for sustained reading of a linear narrative.  So you may also want to suggest to your readers that they order copies of the book now. Whichever edition of the book someone reads (US, UK or online), there is a navigation bar at the top of the online page will help locate them within the conversation.

Author avatar

on October 22nd, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Lenelle Moïse

Lenelle Moïse is an award-winning “culturally hyphenated pomosexual poet,” playwright and performance artist. She writes jazz-infused, politically-charged performance texts about Haitian-American culture and the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality. Moïse blogs regularly for Showtime’s At 20, she co-wrote the screenplay for a Rodrigo Bellot film, Sexual Dependency, which has been screened at dozens of international festivals. Moïse received an MFA in Playwriting from Smith College. Moïse regularly performs her autobiographical one-woman show Womb-Words Thirsting at colleges across the United States and her newest musical Expatriate was produced Off-Broadway at the Culture Project in July 2008 and met with critical acclaim.

Author avatar

Lenelle Moïse
on October 21st, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Harriet Rubin

Harriet Rubin is best known as the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, a little bullet of a book on power that is now in its twelfth paperback printing. The book has been published in 27 languages and has been a bestseller in several of them. Rubin currently writes for The NY Times and other publications. She was the founder and publisher of Currency Books/Doubleday, which changed the science and soul of economic thinking. In late Fall 2008, she is launching an on-line publishing program devoted to business, power and leadership.

Author avatar

Harriet Rubin
on October 21st, 2008 at 4:42 pm

« Older PostsNewer Posts »