Bookweek Day 2: On Reading Diaries

This is my current collection of other people’s diaries. I find them at garage sales sometimes.

It’s absolutely fascinating to me what makes people choose to write down one thing and not another. A diary must be the closest thing to glimpsing the actual inside of a person’s brain.

Mostly, I’ve found, people write down astonishingly boring things about themselves. Linda came at 9:00 to clean house. We left at 1:00 to drive to Olympia. Beautiful day! Beautiful trip! Got to Stephanie’s a little ahead of time.

And then every once in a while you’ll find a humorous story, but not be quite certain whether or not the diary writer was trying to be funny:

Took my antibiotics and went to Dr. Wilde for a root canal. Debated with him whether it was the same tooth Dr. Parley had done the root canal on last  year. He had x-rays to prove that was a different tooth. I was angry and unconvinced but I guess I must have been wrong; so I paid $159.50 today. I think he must have been right but in my own mind I felt sure it was the same tooth. I was quite upset about it the rest of the day.

I was telling my friend Esta about my fascination with diaries, and she suggested that I read the diaries of Anne Lindbergh. She then loaned me Bring Me a Unicorn, the first one.

Anne Morrow began compiling her diaries and letters when she was in her 60s. In the introduction, she gave a very thoughtful explanation for why she compiled diaries and letters instead of going for the more traditional autobiography format.

Since autobiography has always been favorite reading for me, quite naturally I considered using this form. To write an autobiography would mean sifting, picking and choosing, shaping and cutting, and then putting the material into orderly chapters, finished portraits, and polished phrases. There is much to recommend such a process. …But there are certain drawbacks. What remains in the end is the point of view of a mature person only. At best–and its “best” is very good indeed–an autobiography reveals a glimpse of life seen at the end of a telescope, from a single stance, that of a woman in the last third of life. 

…Once started on the painful journey toward honesty, with the passage of time one has increasingly the desire not to gloss over, not to foster illusions or to create fixed images, inasmuch as this is humanly possible. One wants to be an honest witness to the life one has lived and the struggle one has made to find oneself and one’s work, and to relate oneself to others and the world.

So I decided on publishing some of the diaries, along with letters, as a more truthful presentation of those years. 

She later added,

Diaries are written for oneself and reveal the writer as he is when alone.

Fascinating, right?

Of course, Anne left a lot of the boring parts of her diaries out, and she really was a great writer who lived an interesting life, so there really isn’t any comparing her book to the diary of Beulah from Washington that I found at a garage sale. Except for that “diaries are written for oneself and reveal the writer as he is when alone” bit.

I’ve read Bring Me a Unicorn and Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. And of course I’ve read classics like The Diary of Anne Frank and Zlata’s Diary. I don’t gobble up diaries the way I gobble up fiction, but I’m still very much interested in recommendations. I think I’ll do L.M.Montgomery next.

9 responses to “Bookweek Day 2: On Reading Diaries

  1. Love this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love reading diaries as well especially people’s lives during WW2 in the UK , one series are by a lady named Nella Last I enjoy reading about this lady’s everyday life but at times I want to shake her . She is such a doormat she lets her husband walk all over her , my personality does not allow me to be subservient and I just want to say to her wake up and see how much better your life would be if you stood up for yourself sometimes .

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  3. I’ve looked for old diaries at garage sales, but the ones I find are always empty! Anyway, a couple of suggestions: seventh-some years ago there was what was called The Mass Observation Project in England, for which people just sent in diary entries about their lives and their thoughts, some of which were later collected into books. I’m pretty sure the two Nella Last books that are cited in the comment above were part of the project (and they are great reading!), but there were also several collections about life in England during the years leading up to the second World War, during the war itself (I think that one’s called We Are At War), and during the subsequent rebuilding years. They are full of details nobody ever thinks of – fascinating stuff.

    Also, if you can find them, L. M. Montgomery’s journals have been collected into five volumes that are really interesting. – Wait, I see you’ve already mentioned those. Sorry to be redundant! But if you want to see the development of a writer, and learn her backstory, they are incredible.

    I also like To See the Dream by Jessamyn West. And Margaret Mitchell’s collected letters weren’t done as a diary, but they read like one. Okay, that was more than two suggestions – stopping now!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hm… You know, I honestly never thought about reading diaries like this. Unpublished, “real” people. Very interesting… I might need to keep an eye out for some at garage sales and such now.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Same here, it never occurred to me to check garage sales for old diaries. I do, however, remember reading my mom’s diaries from years previous (with her permission) with GREAT fascination.

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  6. If you like diaries, and can wade through wobbly phonetic spelling, I can’t recommend Henry A. Shute’s “Real Diary of a Real Boy”, and “Brite and Fair” enough. Both are available for free on Project Gutenberg, and are a rollicking good time.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Have you read “Stepping Heavenward” be Elizabeth Prentiss?


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