Reading Other People's Diaries, Part I

There's a paradox to diaries. They're the most private of books, the record of the thoughts and desires  the author can't or won't speak aloud, writing never shown to anyone else. And yet surely every writer has a desire to be read? It's telling that Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), the author of the granddaddy of tell-all diaries, had the pages bound and listed in the catalog of his library. He wrote the diary in a type of shorthand, but left a key  in his library as well. The best diaries offer the same pleasures as excellent realist fiction: seeing another human being's oddest quirks and most troubling flaws, sharing in their private joys and their deepest fears. Other diaries offer inimitable records of times long gone and places that have since changed beyond recognition.  The Minuteman Library Network's collection includes diaries by fascinating people, some famous, some not--revealing what flawed, compelling, inspiring creatures humans can be. PepysFirst, the aformentioned Pepys. Pepys was a civil servant in the Admiralty, a Member of Parliament, and a breathtakingly blunt man. For example, he complains in one diary entry that his arm is sore from beating a servant.  In another, he recounts an incident at the theater very revealing of daily life in Restoration London and of Pepys himself: "A lady spit backward upon me by a mistake, not seeing me, but after seeing her to be a very pretty lady, I was not troubled at it at all ." His diary is a catalog of his foibles, philanderings, feelings and arguably one of the most enjoyable books of all time.   Some of the entries are just good fun snark, as in his eleven-word review of A Midsummer Night's Dream "the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life," others, such as his eyewitness account of the coronation of Charles II, are windows into history.  And still others reveal what a weird guy he could be.  When the embalmed body of Queen Catherine of Valois (1401-1437)  was on display in Westminster Abbey, Pepys went to see it, and unlike other tourists, he didn't just look. He bent down and kissed the corpse on the mouth, noting in his diary, "this my birthday and I did kiss a Queen." Carolina Maria de Jesus (1914-1977) was the single mother of three children living in carolinaone of the favelas (shantytowns) of Sao Paulo.  She supported herself and her children by rummaging through garbage for things she could sell. They lived in a tin and cardboard shack. They had no plumbing. One water spigot was the only source of clean water for over 500 people. However, Carolina had one stroke of good luck: when she was a little girl a wealthy landowner offered to pay the school fees of all the girls in her neighborhood if they wanted to go. She went long enough to learn to read and write. Literacy gave her a way to vent her frustrations, a way to purge some of her misery. She often found notebooks and pencils in the garbage, and began writing about her life.  Her diary, Child of the Dark,  records how hard she has to struggle to get even the most basic necessities ("I got up at five to get water....I went past the canning factory and found a few tomatoes. When the manager saw me he began to swear at me. But the poor must pretend that they can't hear.") But it's in less prosaic passages that the reader begins to truly feel her misery: "I dreamt I was an angel. I put stars in my hands and played with them.  They danced around me and made a luminous path. When I work I thought: I'm so poor. I can't afford to go to a play so God sends me these dreams for my aching soul." When Child of the Dark first appeared in English the reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune called it, "A haunting chronicle." The reviewer for the New York Times described it as, "Both an ugly book and a touchingly beautiful book...a strangely observant account of sheer misery." More diaries to come. Stay tuned...

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