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?

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

  1. I remember Tom’s review, the book intrigued me and I’ll read the Bellos too.

    I haven’t read many diaries or memoirs. Anne Franck of course and I didn’t know there was another one. Virginia Woolf. Journal à quatre mains by Benoite & Flora Groult. And an excerpt of Madame Roland’s memoirs. And that must be it. I’m interested in Journal by the brothers Goncourt.
    Someday I’ll be brave and start Mémoires d’Outre-tombe and Les mémoires de Saint Simon (he must be Pepy’s alterego, in a way)

    • I got Les mémoires d’outre tombe. I’m not sure if it isn’t easier to read than the Goncourts. I was very surprised to hear about a second anne Frank book and it made me very sad. All that talent wasted. Of course, she wasn’t the only one. I love dieries, I’ve read a lot. It feels a bit wrong when you know the person didn’t intend it for publication.

  2. I’m very interested in A Brief History of Diaries as I always love reading diary entries from historic or famous individuals. I love entries from Pepys’ diary–he was so human; from petty fits of temper like kicking his wife’s sewing basket to dealing with the great London fires, Pepys mixes the mundane with the historic. I’d love to read entries by John Dee!

    I’ve kept journals since I was in college and although there are few things I don’t want to lose, especially about the children when they were infants and toddlers, most of my journal entries are exquisitely boring even to me.

    I’m definitely adding this one to my list!

    • It’s quite short but it gives a good idea and of course adds books to the wish list and piles. I’m looking forward to reading her “Hidden Writer” which fosuses only on a few diarists and their lives. It should be very good.
      The quotes from Pepys make him sound like quite a character. A fascinating resource, for sure. I hope you will like it.

    • In general I prefer memoirs as well. If you have the chnace to find a writer who writes them all it’s intriguing to see how the incidents change. Diaries are surprisingly diverse. There are of course some that only enumerate mundane things but I’m sure if there was a Simenon diary that would be incredibly fascinating and maybe more so than a memoir. Tere is a huge whether the writer wanted it to be published or not.
      I’ll think about a good one for you. Let’s see what other’s come up with.

  3. I had a diary once – it died a natural death at just about the time it would have been useful (when my first daughter was born).

    There’s probably a moral in that somewhere…

    • I keep on buying May sarton’s books and because I’m convinced, i will love them, i keep them for later. So silly. I think I’ll start one soon.
      I’m so glad to hear Judt’y memoir is good. I bought it very recently without hhaving read anything about it, just on a whim.

  4. This sounds very interesting (and Hidden Writer does too) so I have added it to my tbr list. I keep a journal so I enjoy reading other people’s views on the subject but I don’t think I’ve actually read many famous people’s diaries for some reason! I have read some of Sylvia Plath’s diaries (and her letters too) which I enjoyed.

    • I think they serve two very different purposes and that’s why I bought this one despite the fact that I had the other one already. I don’t write as often in my diary as I used to but whenever I abandon it for too long I miss it. I hope you will like the books. I’m looking forward to reading the Hidden Writer.

    • Oh, I know what you mean. A lot of what I wrote during that time is mortifying. I think some diaries are a great source to learn about the past and I admire those who like Pepys wrote with so much detail about their times.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! I will look for this book. I haven’t read many diaries. The only one I can remember right now is called ‘On and Off the Field’ by Ed Smith, which is the diary of a sportsman. It was wonderful though, and is one of my favourite books. I have a book called ‘The Assassin’s Cloak : An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists’ which I hope to read sometime. I think you might like this book 🙂 Because you love diaries, I have to ask you this – have you read Jules Renard’s journals?

    • Thanks, Vishy. I think it will make you discover book you would like to read. I’ve noted quite a few that i would lke to read. I’m not much into sport but I could imagine it would be interesting to read about this as well. The dedication, the passion can be fascinating. I thanks’ for the recommendation, I’ll have a closer looker later.
      No, I haven’t read Renard’s journals but I remember having read about them. they are very famous in France. We read one of his novels in school.

  6. I have the Bellos book on the shelf, very much looking forward to it. We anglophones depend so much on the quality & integrity of translations, so I’m more then curious to look “behind the curtain” at the methods, decisions etc that go into the process.

    I’ve never been a big diary reader. In English the standard of course is Pepys, but rightly or wrongly I’ve never been interested in his voluminous output.

    • I’m not sure i will read his diary any day soon. I’m more interested in introspective diaries, people who don’t just describe waht they see but their inner worlds. That’s why I’m not so interested in travel diaries. On the other hand, if someone is interested in that particular era, I think he is the place to go. No idea how good a writer he was.
      I’m reading the part in Bellos book where he analyzes whether a translator should translate into a non-native language. He challeneges the concept of native language as well. Interesting.

  7. This sounds wonderful–thanks for the heads up! I never could keep a diary-I was always too afraid someone would find it and read it (that’s what having two older sisters will do–instil fear in you). I did keep a journal when I was in elementary school and when I found it when I was much older I couldn’t read it–rather it made no sense as I only used people’s initials and had no idea who I was talking about–it was pretty funny actually. I do love reading journals however–I’ve read Katherine Mansfield’s–that was published by Persephone Books, which was so interesting. I want to read Anais Nin’s journals and Virginia Woolf’s but I have never gotten around to either. Right now I am reading War in the Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo, which is a diary of the years 1943-1944 set in Tuscany–she was Anglo-American and married an Italian–it’s fascinating reading!

    • It’s a wonderful introduction. I remember you mentioning Origo and Johnson mentions her as well btw. It’s seems to be an excellent book and I would like to read it at some point.
      I’m not sure I know the difference between a diary and a journal. That differece doesn’t seem to exist in French or German. Mansfield’s journal is very interesting. I’ve got Anaïs Nin but I find her too much in love with herself. It’s still interesting.

  8. Fascintaing – you add so much to my own review – but obviously you have different perspective being a habitual diary keeper!

    If you get the chance, The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy is particularly good – although I have’t really read enough volumes of diaries to say how it compares to the ones you mention (which sound very interesting)

    Here’s the link to the sponsored police car

    • Tom, this is something that amazes me the most, since I started book blogging, how different people review books in different ways as other elements speak to them.
      If read a few intriguing things about Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries and think i would certainly like them.
      Thanks for that link, I could really not imagine what it would look like. To be honest, it made me laugh out loud.

  9. I like Alexandra Johnson. Everything I’ve read by her has been excellent. I strongly encourage you to read her book about the practice of writing a diary (of course the name escapes me now and I am not in the same place as the book). It’s really good.

  10. This is a fun read, I mean your post not the book, I have no idea this kind of book exist. I am not a fan of reading other people’s diary no matter how famous they are…well, maybe I’ll make exception if certain people publish one. I used to like keeping diary but not anymore after I graduated from college. I tried writing diary in blog (my Indonesian Blog) but didn’t work because I don’t want to share everything about my life with everyone…which makes me wonder why some people shared their most personal event and secrets of their life in their blogs.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. I see what you mean, there are sometimes daries where I wonder while reading them if t’s ok to read it, it seesm so intimate. I don’t think I would ever want to publish my diary. A memoir, yes, maybe that is much more calculated. There are even things I don’t write about in my diary… On the other hand it is interesting to go back occasioanyl and ee tat things were very different from what we remember. But there are really all sorts of diaries and not all feel like reading about someone’s secrets.

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