Friday, December 07, 2007
Some words about keeping and reading diaries
This week's [The] New Yorker has an article about why we read diaries. The article also delves into the reasons we keep (or try to keep) diaries as well.

My own journaling has really fallen off in recent years. I attribute it to a variety of things but mainly to the fact that I have to write so much day to day that I can barely bring myself to blog let alone chronicle my life on a daily basis. So my moleskines are filled with lists of books I want to read, movies I want to see or have enjoyed, and tasks I need to complete. Oh! And reflections and notes to myself when I fail to accomplish the tasks. And as Louis Menand reminds me--"Diary-keeping, on this account, is just neurotic, since the last thing most people want to do with their unconsummated longings and petty humiliations is to inscribe them permanently in a book."

Well, I am nothing if not neurotic.

But I really appreciated the insight about why we read diaries of people who are long gone. I've often wondered this same thing and assumed it had something to do with looking to people smarter than me for insight on a life far more complicated than me. The reading experience was simultaneously depressing and hopeful. I'd become depressed that my diaries were not anything near this complex but I'd be hopeful that the reading would inspire me to become an actualized person.

I prefer Menand's reflections:
The obvious assumption is that we read diaries because we want to know what the diarist was really like as a person, but how plausible, even in the case of famous diarists, is this? It’s true that we read the diaries of Virginia Woolf because they were written by Virginia Woolf, who, in addition to being an interesting novelist, was an interesting character. But (a paradox of representation) we would actually feel that we had a more intimate sense of Virginia Woolf if we read about her in someone else’s diary. Woolf described from the outside by another person is likely to give us a more vivid picture of what Virginia Woolf was really like than Woolf described from the inside by herself. Introspection is not as reliable as observation. (That’s why we have shrinks.)

Inside, everyone sounds, more or less eloquently, like the same broken record of anxiety and resentment. It’s the outside, the way people look and the things they say, that makes them distinct. We read Woolf’s diaries so that we can see other people through Woolf’s eyes.

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Blogger bethany said...

I have the same experience with my own diary keeping. I fear that if I ever become interesting enough that people want to read my diaries, all they will find is adolescent crushing. I also found that I stopped journaling when I started a realtionship with somebody I check in with every day. I tell him the day instead of the page.
I think I also like to read diaries and memoirs because it gives me perspective. Nothing like somebody else confessing their neuroses to make me seem sane...

Thanks for the link to the article. Currently I'm reading one of May Sarton's journals so this is going to be a good backup for that.

Blogger Kourtney said...

I can't seem to read enough memoirs! I love them. I love when they include letters they wrote to others or that were written to them. Reading diaries started at a young age...I mean yours was always interesting to me ;)

Blogger kristen said...

"Nothing like somebody else confessing their neuroses to make me seem sane..."

Is that why we're friends, BK? ;)

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