Alexandra Johnson: A Brief History of Diaries – From Pepys to Blogs (2011)

I regularly find interesting non-fiction (and fiction) book reviews on Tom’s blog A Common Reader. I don’t always get to read the books right away which is a pity. There were two exceptions recently however,  A Brief History of Diaries that I have just finished (here is Tom’s review) and David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear? which I’m still reading (Tom’s review is here).

A Brief History of Diaries is exactly what the title indicates, a short but nevertheless interesting overview of the tradition of journal keeping. Alexandra Johnson won the PEN award for Hidden Writer which I bought earlier this year and will be reading very soon as well.

I’m very interested in this topic as I’ve been keeping a diary since the age of 11. I don’t know how many thousand pages I’ve written because I do not read them very often anymore. This has reasons which would fill a few posts but I’d like to leave the stage to Johnson’s book for the time being.

The book is divided into 5 chapters. The first is dedicated to the innovators, the very first people who kept a diary. The apothecary Luca Landucci is among them. If you’d like to read an eyewitness account of the burning of Savonarola, this is the place to go. John Dee and Samuel Pepys can be found in this chapter as well. I think if you would like to know more about 17th century London, including the great fire, Pepys is the source to consult.

Chapter 2 is one I’m personally less interested in, its focus are the Travel and Explorer Diaries. I’m familiar with Ibn Battuta’s diary because it’s an early source for cultural anthropologists. Johnson included in this chapter Western pioneer travel diaries which sound very interesting.

Chapter 3 gives an overview of the diaries of artists and writers. I found many I would like to read or at least browse. Sonya Tolstoy, about whom Johnson writes extensively in Hidden Writer, is mentioned as well as Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and May Sarton. The appeal of these diaries is to see how some sketches, little incidents, ideas are later incorporated into novels. We can follow the seed and watch it grow into a plant.

Chapter 4 is dedicated to war diaries. Those of the poets of WWI are mentioned (Sassoon, Owen, Graves) as well as the two famous WWII diaries by Anne Frank and Etty Hillesum. I wasn’t aware that there are two Anne Frank diaries. It’s interesting because the two diaries show the emergence of a writer. The first is just the diary of a child noting all that happens but later, she rewrote the diary. Her father seems to have thought it best to publish the early original first. The full unabridged version was only published in 1997. A war diary I’d never heard of before but which I would love to read is Mary Chestnut’s Civil War diary.

Chapter 5 is about digital diaries. I do not consider my blog like a diary at all and I would never use an online diary. I’m a fan of handwriting and have always been. I choose my pens and ink carefully. Choosing a new diary is a big ritual. So I was far less interested in this chapter and it’s also very brief.

This book is, as it states in the title, only an introduction, but it’s very well done and the bibliography at the end of the book is valuable.

I like reading diaries and have quite a collection. There are quite a few I haven’t read yet but I am looking forward to reading them. A major reading project next year, should actually be dedicated to diaries and memoirs. I’d like to read the diaries of May Sarton soon but I also got one by Cesare Pavese and just bought the first volume of the Journal of the brothers Goncourt. Of those I have read so far the one I liked the most was the one by Katherine Mansfield and those by German writer Brigitte Reimann.

Do you like reading diaries? Which were the diaries you liked the most?