osprey_archer: (books)
[personal profile] osprey_archer
I have reluctantly concluded that actual diaries, unlike fictionalized diaries, tend to be boring and I ought to stop reading them unless I have some absolutely urgent need to read a primary source about that thing. Case in point: I finally finished slogging through An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp, which is about an English governess’s experience working in Brussels during the German occupation in World War I, and as such sounds like it ought to be fascinatin.

And there are certainly interesting nuggets of information and if one wants to learn about life in occupied Belgium, this is probably a good source. (I bookmarked a few bits for a story I’ve been tinkering at in my head, set just after the end of World War I.) But just reading through it with no particular aim - gosh, it’s so repetitive. And I don’t think this is particularly Thorp’s fault, either, I think diary keepers just tend to be repetitive, and certainly they rarely seem to have vibrant character sketches or ongoing story arcs like novels-in-the-form-of-a-diary too.

Although Anne Frank’s diary does rather, so perhaps after all some of the blame ought to be laid at Thorp’s feet. Maybe she is just a boring diarist. But then the boring ones do seem to outnumber the ones who write intense thoughtful character sketches, so my resolve to mostly steer clear of diaries still ought to hold me in good stead.

Date: 2017-06-10 01:27 pm (UTC)
missroserose: (Default)
From: [personal profile] missroserose
I wonder if part of the difference was that Anne Frank had aspirations for (and some talent at) writing as a career, and thus probably had a better eye for what makes interesting reading. Some folks just don't understand this kind of thing - I have one friend in particular I'm thinking of who's complete pants at context and narrative coherence. I'll ask him what's going on in his life, and he'll give me one or two items with no context; I have to follow up with "wait, who's this new person you're seeing? How'd you meet? What is it you like about them? Are you planning for the future together?" I sometimes feel like catching up with him is more of an inquisition than a conversation.

In any case, I find this topic particularly interesting because I struggled to keep a diary for basically my entire childhood. I'd start them, write a few entries, and inevitably trail off - somehow it didn't seem worth the bother without an audience. It wasn't until LiveJournal came around, and I had at least a potential audience, that I started writing about my life on the regular...albeit in a highly editorialized format. Recently I've begun keeping a private diary again, and more than once I've found myself struggling between "writing for an audience" and "writing for my own edification" - do I really want to spent a page outlining my history with this particular person I just mentioned, for instance? Writing in dead-tree format definitely encourages brevity. But I've had it happen where I'll look at an old entry and be completely confused as to who or what I was referring to, so even Future Me needs a narrative helping hand sometimes.

On a more academic/historic level, diaries both fascinate and frustrate me - they're such valuable primary sources, and yet by their very nature they tilt the historic narrative towards the (usually white) middle and upper class, since other groups likely didn't have the resources or the spare time (or, in many cases, literacy) for diary-keeping.

That said, probably my favorite story of a diary-that-became-famous was that of Samuel Pepys, largely because he's the sort of person most would find eminently forgettable (a minor bureaucrat with a talent for administration and accounting) and his diary is incredibly repetitive and boring...but also happens to be one of the few firsthand accounts we have of London during the Black Plague. And thanks to the very traits that make Pepys both a talented accountant and a boring diarist (his eye for detail and thoroughness in accounting), it's an incredibly valuable account...even if most publications are significant abridgements, heh.

Date: 2017-06-11 01:59 am (UTC)
sovay: (I Claudius)
From: [personal profile] sovay
and even as literacy spread to the lower classes, it was still the comparatively well-off who had the time and the wherewithal to write reams of diaries and letters and essays and pamphlets and poetry, and also to ensure that it was preserved for posterity.

One of the most interesting diaries I have ever read is the slightly mistitled Sapper Martin: The Secret Great War Diary of Jack Martin (2009) ed. Richard van Emden. I read it the year it was published; the writeup dates from a few years later. It's one of the rare diaries from the First World War that was not kept by an officer. For what it's worth, I was not ever bored by it.
Edited (italics) Date: 2017-06-11 02:00 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-06-11 01:16 pm (UTC)
missroserose: (Default)
From: [personal profile] missroserose
All true - I didn't mean to imply that diaries were the only case. :) It was one of the things that frustrated me hugely about The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson did such painstaking work recreating the voices and steps and frustrations and triumphs of his characters...and of course they were all middle-to-upper-class and white and mostly men, because that's what he had to work with source-wise. (To his credit, he makes sure to mention the laborers who built the World's Fair and the conditions in which they were working, but as you say, there's not really any record of their individual voices.)

Date: 2017-06-10 03:09 pm (UTC)
asakiyume: (nevermore)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
I kept a diary as a little kid and it was every bit as boring as you can imagine it might be. "Today I played with Lisa. We went down to the creek. After dinner we had ice cream."

Date: 2017-06-11 09:10 pm (UTC)
asakiyume: (miroku)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
I'm impressed with child-you's persistence in recording that information. I'm sure I would have tailed off **fast**.

Date: 2017-06-10 03:10 pm (UTC)
asakiyume: (Em reading)
From: [personal profile] asakiyume
Sounds like a wise decision--but yes: a good resource for period views of things or for a sense of the mundane or for small details you might not get elsewhere.

Date: 2017-06-10 03:56 pm (UTC)
evelyn_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] evelyn_b
I love diaries at all levels of dullness, but yeah, the vast majority of them are pretty boring (and often very opaque, if the diarist doesn't have literary aspirations, or is just really busy, and sometimes even if they do or aren't).

Date: 2017-06-11 01:38 am (UTC)
evelyn_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] evelyn_b
That would have been very sad! And then I might not have noticed that you had a JPP tag and DEMANDED that we become friends. So much tragedy from a seemingly sensible rule! :(

Anne Frank was writing to her imaginary friend, (I think) Kitty - a conceit she got either from an earlier published diary or from a novel, I don't remember which. And a good chunk of the 19thc diaries I've read were joint efforts by sisters or friends - it wasn't uncommon to have an audience.

LMM's joint diary (co-written with a friend while the friend was staying over) is VERY different from her personal prepared-for-publication journals - it's this magnificently silly semi-fictional flirtation and wordplay party. You see a side of her that's been barely hinted at in her Journals since she was 14-16.

I should probably re-read Anne Frank as an adult. I'm sure I've forgotten a lot, even setting aside that I didn't really understand at fifteen what it means to die at fifteen.
Edited Date: 2017-06-11 01:38 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-06-11 01:50 am (UTC)
evelyn_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] evelyn_b
Yes, it's very silly and delightful. Not necessarily completely accessible to the general reader because it's almost entirely made up of inside jokes, but that's par for the course. I like to see Maud having fun. The Journals aren't 100% fun-free, but they do skew sad, especially later on. I can't remember now where I read it, whether in the published Journals or elsewhere. . . but I'll hunt it up for you soonish if you don't find it yourself.

Date: 2017-06-11 04:53 am (UTC)
minutia_r: (Default)
From: [personal profile] minutia_r
Completely irrelevant, but when Hamilton was just getting big I would see LMM and think Lucy Maud Montgomery and I was very confused. Now apparently my brain has made the switch because I see LMM and think Lin Manuel Miranda and am once again very confused.

(Would totally read Lin Manuel Miranda's diary that he wrote with a friend, though. Or watch his Anne of Green Gables musical.)

Date: 2017-06-11 01:27 am (UTC)
sovay: (I Claudius)
From: [personal profile] sovay
I have reluctantly concluded that actual diaries, unlike fictionalized diaries, tend to be boring and I ought to stop reading them unless I have some absolutely urgent need to read a primary source about that thing.

I have had good experiences with diaries where the authors were professionally writers or otherwise handy with language; otherwise I agree they are most useful for data and mindsets rather than literary value.

Date: 2017-06-11 02:01 am (UTC)
sovay: (I Claudius)
From: [personal profile] sovay
and primary source value, which might be helpful in sorting potentially interesting diaries from probably dull ones.

There's also the individual nature of the primary source material, which can make even a resolutely prosaic diary worth reading if what it's talking about is interesting enough to the reader.

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