Reading Diaries and Letters

The daily practice, compulsory or near compulsory, of setting down one’s ideas and the day’s events in a diary allows a virtual autodidact like myself to learn how to reflect, how to exercise the memory by focusing deliberately rather than randomly on images.... Robert Bolano The Third Reich, Part I

I am not one for reading personal diaries or letters. Both seem disjointed, without a central theme or story line. If you are a biographer, they may provide essential information. Or if you like to know about a well-known person, you might find them interesting.

However, diaries do provide a personal view of the past, a view that is often representative of a wide segment of the population. They may also document more general trends in a country at the time they were written. And a great many diaries and letters have been best sellers for many years.

Clearly, I am in the minority on the pleasure of reading such collections.

Yes, the letters and diaries of writers and historical figures interest a great many people—Ann Frank, Virginia Woolf, David Foster Wallace, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Bellow, Orwell, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Washington, Lincoln, etc. etc.

But what about the rest of us, the life of ordinary people? So many have of us have set down our life stories on paper. What is to become of these accounts?

Of course, you can publish them yourself or through the services of self-publishing companies.

The Life Writing Connection (LWC) is an alternative that publishes the journals, diaries, letters, and memoirs written by 20th century Americans. Its goal is to publish online the writings of individuals that might otherwise remain unknown or more likely lost or destroyed. However, not many individuals have submitted their writings to the LWC.

A somewhat similar archive, National Diary Archive but not restricted to the 20th Century, has been far more successful in Italy. To date, 7000 journals and letters of ordinary Italians have been added to the Archive.

The city of Pieve Santo Stefano, a small town in Tuscany, has become the repository for these letters and diaries. It may have started there because a resident of the town offered a prize (1000 Euros or $1,332) for the most “compelling” submission. Anyone can compete for the prize that is given each year. Winner or not, all entries become a part of the archive.

According to the Times (8/19/14), “Some were brought here by their authors, who range from frustrated homemakers to unrepentant bank robbers; other by heirs of the diarists. Yet others were found in attics or at flea markets, then turned in because their story struck a chord with their readers. The earliest diaries date to the 18th century, but most from the 20th century.”

Would such an archive be successful in this country with success measured in terms of number of submissions and how often they are read? First there is the matter of funding the archive, then marketing it and publicizing it widely. Perhaps an annual prize would also promote submissions, as well as an easily accessible website.

As long as the submission process is not complicated, I have every reason to believe that a US National Diary Archive would be equally popular in this country. Countless individuals keep a journal or diary and some even write letters. As long as they have no desire to keep them private, they may be quite willing to post them on the Archive.

Who knows, there is always a chance of winning that prize.


Stefanie said...

I've not been so good at keeping a diary for the past few years but I still do it now and then and always hope to become more regular about it. I do have years and years of diaries I've kept since I was 10 and I have no idea what will happen to them since I am not famous nor do I have children. If there was a place to send them that would genuinely be interested in them I would totally do it. I also think it would be interesting to glimpse into the diaries of other regular people.

Richard Katzev said...

Perhaps a US Diary Archive will take hold in this country. There are a few people interested in establishing it and I've been corresponding with a couple. I've suggested a Kickstarter project. Maybe it will happen. I'll let you know.

Linda said...

I like reading diaries and private letters of famous people. But I always wonder if they are written with the thought in mind that they will become public someday. I think the diaries of ordinary people would be like time capsules for people of the future. Very much worth collecting and storing. A Kickstarter project is a great idea.

Richard Katzev said...

In my case, I have been concerned that one day my journal/diary will be read by others. And so over the years, I have deleted those parts that speak ill of others or are too private to be read by someone else. The chronicle is now a word document on my computer. It would be a simple matter to delete the whole thing.

Linda said...

Yes, I agree with you. I understand why people destroy their personal papers when they know they are approaching the end of life. Historians cry out at the loss, but there are some things that should not see the light of day.

Richard Katzev said...

As is usually the case, we agree. Who needs to know about all my mistresses?

Sheila Brifman said...

This was very informative to read and I found the links that you provided to be very helpful. I have accessed those links and have started to read the journals and diaries posted there.
I have written in journals for over 30 years and always found the experience helpful and healing.
Please think twice before deleting your diary.

Richard Katzev said...

Hi Sheila:

I won't delete my diary, although I may edit it a bit. Thank you for your comment.