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Paper Journals: Another Thing of the Past

Psychologists at the University of Haifa, Israel, have just published research suggesting that writing an online public blog ‘improves children’s self esteem more than keeping a private journal’.

This may be the result of the world in many ways being more open, with people happy to expose quite intimate details to others in person and online. It may just be that as the net takes over more and more, the notion of the handwritten secret diary has just run out of time.

The research suggest that opening a blog to others, even strangers, allows advice and support (as well as abuse and hostility) to be added in. The sharing on the internet had a positive effect on more troubled youngsters than asking them simply to write their thoughts/feelings down for themselves alone.

Secret Thoughts Recorded

Either way, it’s interesting that people should still feel the need to record their thoughts, things that happened to and around them, from the trivial to the momentous. Historians and sociologists of any future have always valued diaries from the past as a rich source of data to inform our understanding of people’s lives in times gone.

The thing about the contemporary blog (originally web log) is that it is here to stay in cyberspace for ever. It will not be burned up, nor crumble away with the yellowing decay of paper. So what people say for today, they should be aware, is also for tomorrow and the days beyond.

Before digital technology, people from every walk of life kept accounts of their daily lives, many of which became regarded as literary masterpieces, others simply exercises in self indulgence.
American film actress Mae West said: ‘Keep a diary, and some day it’ll keep you’. Oscar Wilde quipped, ‘I never travel without my diary. I like to have something sensational to read on the train’. Both remarks suggest past diaries were not only kept for private thoughts/remembrances, but were expected to be read in the future.

English 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) set the standard. He lived in interesting times, close to Charles II after the civil wars, 1642-1651. He was a Member of Parliament and Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. His coded diaries contained eyewitness accounts of landmark events like the Great Plague and the Fire of London as well as his love life and domesticity.

Anne Frank kept her diary while in hiding for 2 years from the Nazis in German-occupied Holland in the Second World War. It has become a potent symbol of Holocaust resistance, recording her perceptions, hopes, emotions and problems. She was one of the million Jewish children who perished in concentration camps.

Political Diarists Set Their Record Straight Through Writing

Many US Presidents have set down their experiences and thoughts including, Harry S Truman and Ronald Reagan. British politicians given to secret jottings included 1960s’ Labour Cabinet Minister Tony Benn, and former-PM Tony Blair’s chief political adviser, Alastair Campbell. Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, kept one and countless writers, poets and artists, like Iris Murdoch, Tolstoy, Siegfried Sassoon, Andy Warhol, ‘Alice’ creator Lewis Carroll and musicians Pete Doherty, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.

Famous Fictional and Infamous Fake Diaries

Since the public never seems to tire of private, often honest musings of people they know about, there has over the years been a ready market in fictionalising or fabricating diaries for publication.

Bridget Jones Diaries are 1996 novels by Helen Fielding made into a movie in 2001 about a single woman in her thirties in London, and it chronicles her loves, friends and fantasies. There was a follow-up movie in 2004: The Edge of Reason.
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (1982) is comedic fiction written by Sue Townsend and is described by publishers, Penguin as “an unabashed, pimples-and-all glimpse into the troubled life of an adolescent. Writing candidly about his parents’ marital troubles, the dog, his life as a tortured poet and ‘misunderstood intellectual’, teenager Adrian Mole’s painfully honest diary makes hilarious and compelling reading”.

Fabricated diaries, designed to con publishers and readers, include The Hitler Diaries. West German magazine Stern reported in 1983 the discovery in East Germany of 62 handwritten volumes of secret diary by Adolf Hitler. It sparked a storm of controversy and interest, but after time people realised they were the biggest historical hoax of the 20th century.

Faked or real, famous or infamous, diaries provide fascinating glimpses into the worlds of other people. There is little reason to suppose that future (digital) diaries and blogs wont do the same in the future giving future generations insights into the way we live now.

The Diaries of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Reflect All of Life.
University of Haifa.

Photo: Halkios Nikolaidis