Published Diaries You Shouldn’t Miss
Reading Tom Nissley’s book “A Reader’s Book of Days” got me thinking about the nature of time in literature. Storytellers can expand time – James Joyce’s “Ulysses” takes place over a single day – June 16, 1906 – or collapse it with the simple words, “Five years later,” or some other version of…”temporally speaking, we’re about to make a big jump here.” They use specific times to make their stories realistic. Nissley cites H.P. Lovecraft, the terrifying horror novelist of the early 20th century, as a writer who made his stories even more dreadfully realistic by naming precisely on which days they occur.
And then there are diaries, the day-by-day recording of events, thoughts, ruminations and moods that help the reader relive the existence of another person in all its glory and tedium. We talked earlier about novelists who use the diary form, but Nissley’s book got me thinking about published diaries of real and generally famous people, authors included. I love reading these. It is so helpful, somehow, to know that a famous person’s entire day was taken up with the fact that their plumbing wasn’t working. Though many people are aware of more famous published diaries, such as “The Diaries of Anne Frank” and the diaries of the Marquis de Sade, here are some less read ones, roughly in chronological order:
“The Journals of Lewis and Clark:” really, everyone should make a run at these journals, which chronicle in vivid, excruciating and, ok, sometimes numbing detail the progress of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the country in the early 1800s. Maybe you think you know what wet and cold means, but you can’t really appreciate how miserable these fellows were when they landed on the Pacific Northwest coast in November and had to ride out an entire rainy winter, sitting in their miserable tents as their leather breeches rotted off them. Let’s don’t even get into the fleas. Really makes you appreciate what they went through, and what a glorious place unspoiled America was.
“The Story of My Life” by Helen Keller. This isn’t really a diary, more of an autobiography, but I include it because it is a first-person account of a woman with a unique story. Most people know of Helen Keller’s life through the play and the movie “The Miracle Worker,” which dramatically showed how a dedicated teacher, Annie Sullivan, helped Keller, who was deaf and blind, learn to communicate. “The Story of My Life,” published in 1903, is her story told from Keller’s perspective, and it has a relatively fresh perspective, since she published it when she was only 22. One can only marvel anew at her determination to complete so many things, including this book,. She used a Braille machine to type out this account. It’s still available.
Alec Guinness’ diaries: Alec Guinness has to be one of my favorite actors of all time. He mastered dozens, if not hundreds of roles, though my favorite has to be his portrayal of George Smiley, the hero of John le Carre’s trio of novels about the British Secret Service . Just imagine the people he met Interestingly, Guinness believed that he was psychic, and said frequently that he had experienced a premonition of James Dean’s death.
For all his talent, people who met Guinness said he was easy to miss. He was a quiet man with generally unremarkable looks…until you looked into his penetrating eyes. Clearly, he used his quiet demeanor to become an unparalleled observer. Some of this material is collected in Guinness’ 1997 book, “My Name Escapes Me: Diary of a Retiring Actor.” I think more is to come, since a whole bunch of Guinness’ diaries were donated to the British Museum last year.
Andy Warhol’s diaries: Andy Warhol, the famous pop artist, didn’t actually write these himself; he dictated them to an assistant. From 1976 to 1987 (just a few days before his death) Warhol would phone his personal secretary every day to discuss what happened the day before, plus mundane lists of to-do items like bills outstanding. The drugs, the parties, the incendiary encounters of a lot of creative people. Published as book called, fittingly, “The Andy Warhol Diaries” in the early 1990s.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “The Santaland Diaries” by David Sedaris. This essay, which was first a radio piece, chronicled comic genius Sedaris’ work as a Christmas Elf in Macy’s. Subsequently collected in a book, this was Sedaris’ breakout work, though subsequent fact-checking revealed that all of it may not have been entirely true.