The Ever-Changing Story of Us: ‘A Brief History of Diaries: From Pepys to Blogs’

Why keep a diary?

In the annals of deceptively simple questions, this surely must be one of the most beguiling; diary-keeping is the formalised act of recording the chaotic inner self, the universal expression of the very individual — and sometimes very urgent — desire to ‘only connect’, as E.M. Forster once put it.

How and why this connexion happens, as Alexandra Johnson demonstrates in A Brief History of Diaries, is as varied and engaging a story as the human experience itself, In this short essay (100 pages, including copious sample extracts) she charts the milestones of mankind’s relationship to journalling, and by extension reveals the sympathetic fascination that drives both writer and reader, riding the ever-shifting boundaries between our most intimate impulses; self-discipline and indulgence, revelation and revision, confession and exhibition, shame and catharsis.

Put most simply, diaries are an expression of humankind’s desire to understand the wider world and to be understood by it, in turn.

It’s an interesting exercise. In theory, the idea of holding a mirror up to our own foibles seems rather foolish; in this context diary-keeping comes across as affected, the province of people who fancy themselves rather more important than they are. In practice, however — at least, among those who persevere in the habit, driven by that visceral urge — this same ordinariness means there’s nothing quite so immediately revealing, and hence relateable in all of literature. It’s the story, quite simply, of us.

A Brief History of Diaries is structured largely around the mechanics of this story-telling process, organised neatly into chapters covering the most prominent uses of the form, but always struggling to define that fascinating something just out of reach of logical development. To analyze the results of the creative impulse is one thing; to pin down its origins quite another, and the reader is always conscious of their own creativity being simoultaneously validated and challenged further.

If the pat answer to ‘for whom am I writing?’ is, pace Virginia Woolf, ‘Myself’, there still remains the question, as Katharine Mansfield neatly parried, of which self. Here the evidence is naturally limited to published works, and only those that can serve as iconic examples — those readers going in on the assumption this is a history of the diarists, rather than their diaries, are inevitably going to be disappointed at the absence, or of at least some of their favourites.

We are, however, thoroughly re-introduced to not only Woolf and Mansfield but Pepys, Boswell, Livingstone, Anne Frank and assorted others… up to and including the American Rev. Robert Shields, history’s undisputed marathon journal-keeper, outdoing them all –- by a few million words — in his obsessive need to connect. As Johnston wryly notes, he devoted most of his adult life (1972-1997, to be exact) to pre-empting Twitter in longhand, pausing every five minutes or so to literally record his every, ah, movement.

It wasn’t always so intimate, nor so casual. In the beginning — which here is the invention of paper, and the attendant respect for a new and rather terrifyingly permanent medium of communication — there were the predictable impulses towards living up to it, using it as a tool for self-discipline and improvement, memorialising what was really important. Hence the genealogical record, the traveller’s diary, and later those of explorers, scientists and pilgrims – and, later, witnesses to the bleakly intimate details of war.

These early diarists are the ones the casual reader is least likely to be familiar with, and it’s a good place to start; the gradual dissipation, from conscientious chronicler of the ideal to the fallible narrator of the mundane — as exemplified by Pepys and Fanny Burney — is predictable but charming, almost novelistic in the way it draws the reader in as the ‘characters’ become more recognisable. This in turn serves as a lead-in to the deeper concept of the diary as record of opinion, the value of the immediate, intimate reaction to war and other crises… and so back around again to self-examination and -discipline, as artists and their close observers alike struggle to understand their own methodologies.

A final chapter is devoted to exploring the form in its most obsessive, ubiquitous and frankly invasive incarnation: the new frontier of electronic journal-keeping, and the changes community has wrought. One’s every thought can now be potentially pinned up on the bulletin board in the global village; wannabe bloggers can now instantly access sites like, or a host of similar sites, for comfort, inspiration or fellowship, as they please. What was once an act of private self-reflection has become a project involving not only mutual inspection but judgement, and possibly even profit — but has the ability to connect improved or deteriorated as a result?

“The diary has come full circle,” Johnson concludes. “Yet the circle keeps expanding, twisting back on itself, less a circle than an ever-expanding helix.”

All of this is rendered, as per above, in a plainly academic but very readable style, mostly resisting the temptation to paper over the absence of concrete conclusions with flowery phrasing, and winding up before the reader can become impatient with the repetition of the obvious. For the most part the extracts are well-chosen, letting the subjects speak for themselves clearly and without intrusive editorialising.

I thoroughly recommend this book, not only as a wonderful light read for anyone’s lazy afternoon, but for artistic types wanting to explore the spectrum of their relationship to their creativity, from acceptance to challenge. ‘Only connect’… the more complex it becomes, the more satisfying it can be.

RATING 8 / 10