A few months ago, I rediscovered a diary I kept when I was thirteen years old. This find made me think that diaries might make good Christmas presents for my grandchildren, ages ten and thirteen.
I cautioned them to avoid dumb entries such as my own: “Washed my hair, went to the show.” I do like my entry about liking Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, except for being “stuck beside somebody who smelled like barn” (I grew up in a little farm community in Wisconsin). I had hoped my old diary would give me a glimpse of who I was, what did I think about, and what was I doing (besides washing my hair).
Perhaps because I only had one line a day, I stopped short, beyond telling what movies I saw and who starred in them. My critical thoughts or feelings were succinct: “I didn’t like it much,” or “I loved it!” or “It was wonderful!” At least I reported the movie titles. Although I was always a reader, for some reason I never wrote about the books I read.
I also was very selective in what I said about school. A cursory “did homework” … no details, was the norm. Most school entries involved Mrs. Jensen, who clearly had it in for me. She was always bawling us out, or slapping somebody, and one day, joy of joys, LOSING HER VOICE!!!
Mrs. Jensen was not without a sense of humor, however: her only test question on April 1 was “What day is it?” I wrote: “I almost fainted.” Entries about my friends are equally mysterious; my diary offers no insights about who they were, or why they were my friends.
Since I wished I had more insights from my old diary, I cautioned the grandchildren to try to keep a diary that, looking back when they are old like Gramma, might show them what kind of people they were and what kind of lives they were living.
I shopped for the grandchildren’s diaries at Just for Fun & Scribbledoodles on 24th street in San Francisco. There I was amazed to see that Chronicle Books is publishing the same diary I used 65 years ago, without the forwards about the mind being a wonderful machine or turning aside the veil of forgetfulness. I found nothing about the maker of my diary, Bert Manufacturing in Irvington-on-Hudson, on the Internet.
For kids today, you can pick out a diary with a lock, diaries designed for girls or for boys, or a gender-neutral pile of cats or cupcakes. If my diary had had a lock, I wonder if I would have revealed a bit more of myself.
Not all diaries are just letters to ourselves, of course. The most famous diary ever is that of Anne Frank. Anne started writing letters to her diary “Kitty” shortly after she went into hiding from the Nazis in 1942. But when she heard a radio broadcast from London in 1944 urging the preservation of diaries, letters, and other ordinary documents as a testimony to the suffering during the Nazi occupation, she set out to rework the diary with future readers in mind. She succeeded beyond wildest dreams and what a tragic loss it is that she was not able to write more for us, or live to look back upon what a bright and accomplished young woman she was.
While Anne’s diary was true, novelists often use the diary form to tell stories. I recently read The Shape of Mercy by Susan Meissner. Mercy, convicted at the Salem witch trials, has left a remarkable diary – good enough to read on its own – but the novel offers even more: the stories of the elderly librarian who has inherited the diary, and the young woman she hires to transcribe it.
The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson tells the stories of three women. In Russia, around 1888, a young woman doctor, blinded and dying, kept a diary to record life in the countryside. A century later, two American women who happen upon the diary, realize that a guest on the doctor’s country estate most likely was Anton Chekov. One of the women, a publisher, hopes to find and publish a novel Chekov may have written at that time. The other, a translator, is key to revealing the secrets held in the dying Russian woman’s diary.
For additional diary novels, check out Goodreads’ recommendation, 169 Best Diary Novels. And if you are really a glutton for diary novels the catalog of SFPL lists 873 titles under the subject Diaries – Fiction. Many of these are books written for children.
David Sedaris recently published selections from his diaries 1977-2002, Theft by Finding. The book is cataloged as biography and in a roundabout, David Sedaris way, it does tell you a lot about this very funny guy. Probably the biography is part fiction, but do you really care? Mr. Sedaris has a wild and wonderful way of looking at the world. From his the hardscrabble days when he was thinking of becoming a painter (thank God he didn’t) to becoming a writer, family life, and years in Paris, Sedaris’ fans will be happy he wrote these letters to himself, and then published them for us.
Diaries are good ways for us to lose ourselves in the lives of a contemporary humorist, a dying woman living in the Russian countryside in the 1880s, a young woman condemned to die as a witch, a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis, or maybe even our 13-year old selves.
169 Best Diary Novels. Good Reads
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. Wikipedia