How many of us keep daily journals? Or read diaries? I’m not talking about your big sister’s diary, but rather published diaries. Some of my favorites are Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. I’ve had the opportunity to glimpse a few original journals and notebooks on exhibition over the years, most memorably photographer Dorothea Lange’s notebooks at the Oakland Museum of California, James Agee and Walker Evans’ notebooks and correspondence at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and John Steinbeck’s journals at The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.
Last week (via the National Geographic blog “Intelligent Traveler”) I learned of the exhibition “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” at The Morgan Library and Museum through May 22, 2011, where seventy diaries from the permanent collection are on display – including those of Henry David Thoreau, Charlotte Bronte, Anais Nin, Tennessee Williams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Steinbeck. Even if you’re far from New York City, you can still get a sense of the exhibit via the curator’s blog, online gallery, and audio podcasts.
Most of us probably had at least one of those little diaries that came with a key and lock when we were growing up. I would get those sometimes as Christmas gifts, but after a few weeks I’d get bored with writing the same entry: got up, went to school, came home, fought with my little brothers, did homework, watched TV, went to bed. (I probably embellished that part about doing my homework.)
I’ve kept journals most of my adult life, however these days most of my journaling is done in an electronic format. My most recent paper journals were plain Exacompta refills for the leather journal jacket I bought at the Steinbeck Museum in 2004 after I’d been inspired by seeing his writing notebooks. Journaling has become a habit, a way of recording days and events, and though I rarely go back to reread my old journals I suppose I have it in mind that someday I’ll read through them again when my memory fails in old age.
Recently I consulted the journal kept during my San Francisco years for setting details as part of research for my novel. My San Francisco diary was bought at Green Apple Books on Clement Street, a favorite bookstore back then, which is still in business today at the same location (and the same wooden gnome still stands on the street out front). I remember looking at those blank journals each time we visited the store, wishing I had $8 to buy one. Money was tight back then and we’d spend hours browsing and selecting used paperbacks for only a quarter or fifty cents apiece. I’d always stop to look at those journals, imported from Shanghai and covered in silk cloth in various colors and patterns. I’d hold one in my hands and flip through the clean white pages. By the time I had saved enough money, I knew exactly which one I’d buy. Today that journal is filled with entries beginning in April 1980 and ending in 1986, and even though it spans years with moves to other cities, I still think of it as my San Francisco journal.
As for those childhood diaries, none of mine survived the years. I would make entries for a few days and then abandon them, which is why I’m pretty impressed by the childhood diary a dear friend showed me. She recently found it after her mother died, among some things her mother had saved for her. My friend wrote in that diary faithfully for nearly an entire year, and in doing so managed to capture specific details and a personal history of daily life from that era. I wish I had done the same.