Wednesday, April 15, 2009


journals vs. diaries

I spent some happy hours last week scouring the local used bookshops for more books by Ronald Blythe, and the only thing I came up with was a hardcover first of his anthology The Pleasures of Diaries: Four Centuries of Private Writing (Pantheon 1989). Reading this book has only made me want to read about sixty other books (the ones he liberally quotes from), though I must say that the best parts of the book, for this reader at least, are his mini-essays about each of the diarists in question. And his introduction, in which he writes of himself (p.5):

"I cannot say that I am a diarist, being all fits and starts, inhibitions and sloth. Anyone reading my fragments would smell duty and effort at once. My addiction is to other people's diaries..."

Then again, many of his selections simply slay me. Almost all of them have me yearning for the complete work. Danger! I could end up doing nothing but reading his recommendations for the remainder of the year! Here's an example of what I mean, from the diary of 'Chips' Channon, early-to-mid-20th-century social gadfly and upper-crusty guy made good (p.289):

"19 July (1935). Sometimes I think I have an unusual character - able but trivial; I have flair, intuition, great good taste but only second rate ambition: I am far too susceptible to flattery; I hate and am uninterested in all the things most men like such as sport, business, statistics, debates, speeches, war and the weather; but I am riveted by lust, furniture, glamour and society and jewels. I am an excellent organizer and have a will of iron; I can only be appealed to through my vanity. Occasionally I must have solitude: my soul craves for it. All thought is done in solitude; only then am I partly happy."

That phrase in the book's subtitle, Private Writing, really gets right to me and lures me in. Blythe splits hairs by distinguishing between a diary, written for oneself only, or perhaps to particular person, and a journal, written with an eye to a possible (or certain) future audience, but in the case of this book, I like this distinction. It serves to emphasize the truthfulness of the diarist's experience - I mean an emotional truth as well as the factual, historical truth. Blythe also writes about the compulsiveness and relatively non-narcissistic natures of many diarists, tackling as they do "the Self.... Many are permanently intrigued by being alive and would set down their every breath were it possible." (p.4) Well. The book was a pleasure to read, and it was odd to write afterwards in my own diary/journal about it, transferring my favorite quotations in, the way I always do when I finish a book. Then write about it here, in in another kind of diary/journal. I've kept a written record of my life on and off since I was perhaps ten years old. I've always had a need to download my brain, as it were. It lightens the load, such as it is, considerably. Will anyone else ever read them? I have no idea. I used to call them diaries, then in college an art instructor called them journals - he had our whole class keeping them - he said every serious artist he ever met kept a journal of some kind, and he wanted us to follow suit. I'm grateful for that. It's given me a written record of my own working life, as a bookseller and painter. Not to mention various travails and joys (which usually do go unmentioned in life).

So, the upshot is I now have a list of published diaries to track down. And I'm also in the middle of reading an art book about the British landscape painter Constable. I was tending my book booth at the antiques mall earlier this week, and I realized I had a copy, so I brought it home. Constable, you see, lived right around the corner from where Robert Blythe now lives in East Anglia, and Blythe mentions him frequently in his essays. As my own painting progress is less than stellar at the moment (all fits and starts, inhibitions and sloth), I find I must retreat into art books for some news about other painters. That, and I saw two lovely small Constable landscapes at the museum in Boston last week. So, in the circular and intertwining way in which readers always come naturally to the next books they need to read, I find myself with numerous options.

This blog post has become far too long. I have to go write with a pen instead. But should I call it a diary (good enough for Pepys, good enough for me...?) or a journal (sounds too purposefully upscale...?). Either way, I scribble on.

Thanks for the Blythe reading "key", it's worth following (sometimes I think how C. Morl. would love to read such writing; remember his Good Theatre play?)

Funny about Constable; I have an old edition, biogr. + letters of his, on my desk

Here it's still the Holy Week. This Sunday being Pascha, Easter.
Happy Easter, Antony. We had a quiet day here, made a celebratory lunch for my in-laws, then took a walk in the sun. Thanks for checking in - funny to hear you also have a Constable book on hand - made me smile!
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