Fascination With Diaries

What is the origin of the diary?

The Diary of Anne Frank, the Diary of a Nobody, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13½, The Diary of Samuel Pepys – just four of the hundreds of old diaries, fact and fiction, that have fascinated and entertained – and sometimes educated – us. A diary can be a window to the soul or a record of events – or perhaps both. Why not start your diary today?

One of our LifeBook Memoirs authors in her book tells the story about how, when she was a young girl in London during the Second World War, her father gave her a diary, with the words, “This is a very interesting time of your life, you must write it all down.” The author does as instructed but in due course, on her marriage, throws that diary away. Her sentiments years later? “Wasn’t I silly?”

It was only when she came to write her autobiography, she realized that it was too late – that diary, which could have been so helpful to her, had gone. What had seemed unimportant to her when she was on the brink of a new phase in her life would have given an insight into a different world and a way of life that had disappeared forever, not to mention one young girl’s first-hand experiences of war-torn London.

A daily practice

The word diary comes from the word diarium, Latin for daily, because of course, writing a diary is usually something that is done every day. Diary writing is a routine that allows the writer to unload the thoughts and events that have occurred whether trivial or of significance. In essence, a diary is a representation of the minutiae of day-to-day life, the highs and lows of our existence. Most diarists write for their own personal consumption (no wonder diaries often have small padlocks attached) and generally diaries are private, not destined for the eyes of others. For the diarist, writing daily contributions can be an outlet for emotion, a record of the humdrum as well as the exciting, a way of expressing ideas, observations, and opinions – and not least the provision of a form of self-imposed discipline through the act of sitting down and compiling the entries themselves.

Of course, sometimes diaries are kept as a transient pastime, for example, detailing a holiday or other short-term event. They can be used to address a specific problem, such as a slimmer’s food diary, to record goals and progress over time, or they might even follow a third person, as in the case of a baby’s first year. These types of diaries serve an identifiable purpose and can be the most rewarding to read in the future, bringing memories flooding back.

A window on a world that has all but disappeared

While famous diaries might talk of historical and other important events, shining a light on people in power and their machinations, that is not to say that the diary of ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ should be denigrated. With the advent of modern technology, the life of the average person has been transformed over the past 100 years and who knows where it will lead us? A diary can, in decades to come, become a window on a world that has all but disappeared – and, in fact, this is the case with many well-known diaries; in other words, the diarist never set out with that end in mind; rather, it all came about by a happy accident.

Are you considering writing your autobiography?

For anyone considering writing their autobiography, a diary is certain to be a useful aide memoire. Long-forgotten memories resurface and names and places can be quickly recalled. Queries about dates are easily resolved as are sequences of events. In this way, all these props make the construction of a life story a less daunting task. Having said that, a diary is not a prerequisite for an autobiography, it is merely a useful tool. For those without a diary to call upon, the physical act of writing down memories as they surface can trigger further ones in a snowball effect. This is true particularly if the author has access to the support of others who also remember these times gone by and can help jog the memory.

With the advent of social media, is there a future for the diary? Now that everyone plays out their lives on the internet, will diary writing fall out of favor? Probably not, because therein lies the difference; social media is the public face of daily life – what we want people to know or the image we wish to portray. A diary, in comparison, is the expression of our innermost thoughts and desires. This is is a need that will never die – so long live the diary!

Halima – Editor