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.