On 14 October 1995, Brian Eno wrote “My diary: a book?” in the journal he had been keeping since the start of the year. And so 2021 brings the 25th anniversary of A Year With Swollen Appendices: Brian Eno’s Diary, originally released in 1996. The re-release is a beautiful hardcover edition, “redesigned in the same size as [the original diary]”, with two bookmark ribbons, and a new introduction by the author.
A reader seeking new insights from this edition’s updated material will likely be disappointed. Eno’s 2021 introduction reflects briefly on how the world has changed since the book was initially released, but the bulk of the introduction is a lengthy list of friend-sourced present-day words that didn’t exist in 1995. So in assessing the new edition, it seems that its main contribution is not in bringing something new to the 21st century table, but in continuing the book’s original purpose: illuminating the day-to-day activities of a polymath juggling multiple projects and possibilities.
Published diaries are a tricky business. The diary format is by its very nature performative, in that the diarist is unlikely to include all of their activities for public viewing and comment; indeed, Eno admits in his original introduction that his wife Anthea asked him to omit some material and that the diary entries became more “self-conscious” after his revelation that the diary could become a book. Since most published diarists tend to already be well-known for doing something else, at its worst the diary genre can devolve into tedious “me and my famous friends” humblebragging.
There’s no question that Eno’s diary is an engrossing read, but it’s also performative in that the diary’s contents serve to build up his public image as a multi-talented artist, musician, producer, and all-around deep thinker. During the year that the diary chronicles, he and U2 collaborate on the 1995 Passengers album, and he works with the band James on developing new music; he creates a multi-media installation for the Swarovski “Crystal Worlds” attraction; he participates in events to support the War Child charity, including the Help compilation album and the Pagan Fun Wear fashion show; and he travels frequently. He also spends a great deal of time tinkering with the Koan music-generating computer program. Meanwhile, his wife manages his business dealings, and apparently also manages their household and most of the care of their two young daughters.
In addition to documenting Eno’s creative work, the diary entries include random thoughts about things he encounters and ideas for other projects and are interspersed with lengthy emails from Eno to entrepreneur and author Stewart Brand. Not surprisingly, toward the end of the year, the diary entries begin to reflect Eno’s frustration with having too much to do in too little time and wanting the time and space to focus on one project in depth.
It might be assumed that the “swollen appendices” of the title are an oblique sexual reference, This is not an unreasonable assumption, given Eno’s “well-documented enthusiasm for sex” described by biographer David Sheppard in his 2009 book about Eno, On Some Faraway Beach, and occasionally alluded to in the diary entries. However, these particular “swollen appendices” are more than 30 appendices to the diary itself, printed on blush-pink paper, and consisting of correspondence and essays that expound more fully on ideas briefly mentioned in the diary itself.
Eno has described himself as a good salesman, and some past collaborators have intimated that his talent is perhaps more in promoting himself than in producing meaningful artistic work. The sheer scope of the activity described in A Year With Swollen Appendices is exhausting, and the reader may occasionally wonder whether anyone is truly capable of being outstanding at that many different things.
The reader may also wonder whether anyone has enough profound insights or wisdom to justify a day-by-day chronicle of an entire year of their life, along with more than 100 additional pages of their thoughts. Eno is certainly not blatantly promoting himself as any kind of artistic sage or guru, but an author does not release and then re-release a 440-page book about his life without some sense of self-importance.
Thus, A Year With Swollen Appendices is perhaps most useful as an informative journey through the day-to-day experience of a creative person with a very active mind. The diary may not necessarily provide a more in-depth understanding of Eno as a person, but the mundane details of the life of a public figure and the work of an artist are rarely chronicled in this much depth.
It’s reassuring to know that famous people also struggle with non-functioning equipment, difficult collaborators, missed appointments, cancelled events, and unsuccessful or stalled projects. Famous people may live different lives than most of us, but A Year With Swollen Appendices shows that, in many ways, they are really just like us.