There is so much useful and interesting information in Alexandra Johnson's A Brief History of Diaries I could go on and on about it. As a matter of fact I think I've probably milked this little book for as many posts as I dare, so perhaps it's best if I wrap things up now. I do plan on reading her book The Hidden Writer which I suspect will flesh out the topics she discusses in this overview, but it looks so good I've ordered a copy to keep and returned the library copy. In the interim, while I wait for my copy, I've decided to take a short rest between diaries to reread Helene Hanff's Q's Legacy for something a little different, though no less bookish.
The last three chapters cover writers and artists diaries, war diaries, and digital diaries and cyberspace. I think these chapters have all the really juicy bits, so how about I share a few snippets that caught my eye. A few things I knew but it was nice to read about them again, but lots was new to me, too. I like Oscar Wilde's take on diaries:
"'Do you really keep a diary?' Algernon asks Cecily in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. 'I'd give anything to look at it. May I?' 'Oh no,' she replies, covering it with her hand. 'You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy'."
I had a good chuckle over that. Diary keeping seems an integral part of a writer's life and working process. They are the place where writers find inspiration, try new styles or are mined for material. And writers find inspiration from reading other writer's diaries. "Woolf read Fanny Burney's diaries; Plath read Woolf's, Sarton read about herself in volume five of Woolf's diary." I am already familiar with Woolf's diaries and her famous rivalry with Katherine Mansfield. I've heard about the strange relationship the Tolstoys had--each reading the other's diaries and writing comments in them. I didn't realize that Fanny Burney kept diaries, however, which I imagine must make for fascinating reading between her work as a writer and her time spent at Court.
"Few diarists have moved faster from confession to craft than Fanny Burney. Four novels, eight plays, a biography, volumes of letters detailing London's literary and theatre life owe everything to the journal begun in 1768. The diaries, written in three stages over seventy-two years, show that process wasn't an easy one. By its final entries in 1839, her eight-volume diary had become a major literary work. More than any early journal keeper, hers shows the solitary diarist moving from private to public voice. At their core, Burney's diaries involve the deep permission to begin and sustain creative work."
Anne Frank's diary begun just before she went into hiding in the secret annex is the most widely read diary in history. Having only ever read the end product and not read much about the young girl who wrote it, I didn't know she actually revised and edited it while in hiding. She had heard on the radio that first hand accounts of the war were wanted, which gave her the idea of becoming a journalist. She grew from a diarist writing for herself to someone recording her experiences for others. This makes me want to pull out my copy of the book and read it again more carefully.
I was pleased to see (after so few women were represented in the travel diaries chapter), though perhaps a little surprised, that the focus in the war diaries chapter was more on women writing --Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Origo (according to Johnson her War in the Val D'Orcia is "arguably the finest writer's war diary seen through civilian eyes--I have to agree with that), and American Civil War diarist, Mary Chestnut.
"Chestnut's 800 page diary is a vast social canvas--of auctioned slaves, misguided generals, lowly soldiers and the elite architects of a doomed war that left one million dead and four million slaves freed. The diary's originality lies in its perspective--Chestnut is an insider who writes with the perspective of an outsider. As a diarist she was in a unique position, recording Lincoln's Washington and the Confederate South to which her United States Senator husband returned. Witnessing war in four southern states, she dined often with Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who were both unaware of her anguish over slavery."
When her diary was published in 1982 it won the Pulitzer Prize. Of course I have to read it now, and it is winging its way to me even as I type.
The last chapter on digital diaries was of less interest to me, but Johnson still surprised me by sharing a few thoughts and facts that were, if not unexpected, at least new to me. I didn't realize that there were so many online diary websites. You don't need to keep a paper diary anymore, there are a number of online places to track your thoughts and daily routines. Diary keeping used to be something private but now it's something very public. The Tolstoys probably would have loved all the possibilities the web brings. I'll leave you with just one more thought that I found comforting (at least if it works for book bloggers, too).
"A recent issue of Scientific American acknowledges, 'Besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery'. As millions of megabytes shoot into cyberspace, diarists are rearranging the very structure of neural cell activity."