Sunday, January 23, 2011

Are Bloggers the New Diarists?

The journal of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne 

I love the Morgan Library in New York city.  I visit it every time I am there.  As a lover and collector of rare books, the Morgan Library has many attractions for me.  Last year I saw the fabulous Jane Austen exhibition and it was incredible, including a wonderful short film about Austen and her life.

I wish I were in New York right  now because the Morgan Library is having an exhibition I know I would love, "The Diary:  Three Centuries of Private Lives."  In the New York Times, Edward Rothstein reviewed this exhibition and made the following point:  "Spend some time with these diaries,...and you will see how fervently the keepers of journals labor to shape accounts of themselves."  He goes on to describe  some of the highlights of the show:  the diaries of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Sir Walter Scott, Einstein, Queen Victoria, Anais Nin, and Thoreau.  Adele Hugo, Victor Hugo's daughter, used scrambled words in her diary to describe her secret love which inspired Truffaut's film "The Secret of Adele H." This film will be screened at the Morgan in April.  "The variety is dizzying," writes Rothstein of the diaries in the exhibition.  "All of these are astonishing presentations, confessions, performances -- often self-conscious and perhaps, occasionally honest."

Queen Victoria's diary about her travels in the Highlands

I  have a confession to make.  I  love reading diaries and letters, my favorite being those of Virginia Woolf.  And I realize that there is often a narrative shape given to famous writers' diaries and letters, because the writers realize that they may be read by the public some day.   But isn't that what we are all doing when we write a journal, diary, or  blog entry, creating a sort of running narrative of our lives, a process that helps us derive meaning out of what we are describing?    The story we compose gives our experience a shape and form, and ultimately some meaning.

There is a freshness and immediacy to the spontaneous diary entries of some famous writers, with the air of a quick note and then dashing off.  And sometimes the entry is simply about the mundane activities of a boring day, which Samuel Pepys, the most famous diarist in English did.  But of course these quotidian entries about what he ate, or an argument he had with his wife were part of a larger tapestry he created with his diaries that included reportage of events such as the 17th-century Great Fire of London, which is on display in this exhibition.  

Virginia Woolf  could dash off an entry about a party she attended in London, or gossip about her friends, but she could also write gems about her art which we are lucky to have today.  She wrote in her diary on January 29, 1920, 

"The day after my birthday; in fact I'm 38.  Well, I've no doubt I'm a great deal happier than I was at 28; and happier than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel...My doubt is how far it will enclose the human heart -- Am I sufficiently mistress of my dialogue to net it there?  For I figure that the approach will be entirely different this time; no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen, all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist."


Is what these diarist have done so very different from blogging?  Don't we all try to wring the meaning out of what we do?  And isn't that the beauty of keeping a journal, a diary, or a blog?  We see patterns, we see unexpected beauty, we see themes...And it's all because we are giving it a narrative shape through language. 

Bloggers are chroniclers, diarists, and essayists.  Some do one better than another, some manage to do an assortment of all three.  What they all seem to want to do is share their pleasure in the movement of life, and also to preserve it for their own future reflection.

Charlotte Bronte's diary (at the Morgan) includes a reaction to a dark and stormy night

So the question is why do we write our blogs?  The desire to chronicle our activities, at least those we judge to be valuable, is one driving force.  Many people want to share their passionate response to physical beauty.  Some want to share insights derived from favorite books or wonderful cultural events.  Others want to tell us stories about their families, the way they live, their travels, even their meals.  They have a need to preserve these experiences by writing them down. Others want to communicate moments of illumination, which can come in a flash and just as quickly leave one's consciousness. The blog captures these.

Why do I like reading diaries?  In the case of someone like Virginia Woolf, it is because she paints scenes, reports events, captures personalities, and evokes the general atmosphere of whatever she is describing in a vivid way.  I get to know her, the people in her world, and the very feel of an era long gone.  And of course she is a brilliant writer.

The same applies to well-written blogs today.  When they are vivid and immediate, I enjoy getting a glimpse into another person's world and the things that inspire and excite them. These feelings can be contagious and can inspire me to try new adventures and aspire to new experiences.

A blog, as well as a diary entry, can be simply a snippet of daily activities.  Most likely the blogs that we want to read will be more than that.  Though there is some value to reading about the day to day activities of diarists or bloggers,  most of us want to be inspired.  And this is what makes blog entries not that different from diary entries; they are personal and sometimes intellectual musings meant to be shared.  It turns out that many of the best diarists were constructing their entries with the knowledge that they too might one day be shared.



  1. A really insightful and illuminating post. I always sort of felt "guilty" for following certain blogs until now!

  2. I loved your comments on blogs, and I agree with you. It is a new art form, and your are the most beautiful writer. Thank you.

  3. We have several of my husband's grandfather's "day" books. As a farm boy in Indiana he dreamed everyday of a bigger world. Some days he wrote out quotes (he liked Aristotole). Other days he tackled math and equations he enjoyed. Every day he listed the task as hand (which it seems had to do with moving piles of manure!). He moved from the farm and eventually met his match in my husband's grandmother who collected words.

    And, yes, I see blogs as a high tech version (although I prefer to read the handwriting). And I often think that today's scrapbookers could give Proust a workout!

  4. Sunday..

    I'm starting to understand. Come to NY in
    April and we can go to the Morgan together.


  5. I've struggled with finding just the right mixture of private and public on my blog and you reminded me in this post of my love of the diaries of Anais Nin and Virginia Woolf. I am inspired to re-read them. Who knows, maybe I'll find the courage to share a little more of myself!