Monday, November 30, 2009


The immediacy of diaries

I count myself fortunate in having on hand most of the hardcover volumes of the definitive University of California edition of the Diary of Samuel Pepys. (I still need to buy or borrow VII and VIII.) The principal editors, Robert Latham and William Matthews, wrote an erudite and moving series of introductions in Volume I, about the context of the diary: the man behind it, the complex history of the times, and the diary as a work of literature. Reading these fascinating introductions consumed most of yesterday evening (my knowledge of English history during this turbulent period is mighty shaky and needs significant shoring up), but I did also manage to sally forth into the beginning of the diary itself. And was immediately reminded why I love reading diaries so much. They illustrate an eternal and immediate present. They are only about the day-to-day, whatever that entails for a particular person. They do not differentiate between the mundane and the important. All is important, all is literally noteworthy, to the diarist, in a free-floating now. The editors sum up:

Robert Latham: "...the origins of so deeply personal a document must themselves be personal.... The diary is a by-product of his energetic pursuit of happiness.... He was by nature a man of system, and one to whom the keeping of records was necessary to the art of living." (p.xxviii)

William Matthews: "Diaries are not novels; they are bound to reality, with its deplorable habit of providing excellent story situations and no artistically satisfactory ends." (p.cxi)

There is a beginning here, of sorts - on page one we are pitched headlong into the scenes of a grown man's daily life. In the first twenty-five pages of the Diary, Pepys checks in at the office, records his penury, eats a sack-posset and a turkey pie, hears news of a fatal duel, visits a friend with "swine-pox," plays cards, takes physic for his cold, gossips with friends about Parliamentary politics, hears some sermons, finds out his wife is not pregnant after all, mentions the burial of a young bookseller. January 1660, London, come to life. It could almost be now. Except it isn't - instead it is now, then. Books can be such mysterious time machines. One reason why we read on, I suppose.

Despite the gray rainy scene out my window this morning, I am filled with optimism for this winter reading project.

I am really looking forward to your Pepys posts this winter! Last year, my husband and I fell in love with a first edition set of Pepys Memoirs (which includes his diary, albeit censored) and splurged on it. We will never use these beautiful leatherbound books as reading copies, and I have long ago forgotten my college studies of Pepys. So, your upcoming posts are greatly anticipated. Hopefully, they will inspire me into looking for reading copies and re-reading him myself.
Oh, read a little bit in your first editions, but gently, gently... just enough to give them an airing and remind them why they were made. For the complete Pepys, the University of California Press has nice softcover reprints. Amazon UK has the cheapest secondhand copies of these I've been able to find.

Thank you for your enthusiasm! I feel quite optimistic about my chances of finishing, this time around. Besides, no other books are pulling at me, at the moment, in quite the same way as these. Not something I can say very often.
"Besides, no other books are pulling at me, at the moment, in quite the same way as these. "

I wonder how long that will last! Good luck with the project..

Days, Dan, days...


I can read ten books at the drop of a hat. So why should it be so difficult to read a ten-book series straight through? Though I'm not saying I might not break it up now and then with something else.

Uh oh. This is a slippery slope!
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