Our Hearts are Open Books

Image of Keel's Simple Diary covers via WikiCommons

Image of Keel's Simple Diary covers via WikiCommons

Though often derided, the diary is a distinguished literary form as well as a source of consolation. A new website seeks to publish extracts of diaries and letters penned by current and former adolescents to alleviate the loneliness felt by many teens.

The Open Book Project is designed to remind teenagers that the intense emotions many of them experience are commonly felt across the board. “By sharing a page of your teenage diary,” says the website, “today’s teenagers will know that, no matter where life takes you, there are similar things we all experience when growing up.” The project is auspiced by Reach, which specialises in adolescent mental health.

As part of the website’s launch, extracts have been published of the Victorian Premier’s diary, written when Ted Baillieu was an 8 year-old. Each one of the 8 year-old’s days begins very matter of factly with getting up. Jim Stynes, a founding partner of the project, submitted a 1980 diary extract that records a “blazing row” following a break-up with a girlfriend, then a James Bond film - we assume it was Moonraker.

The diary has proven fertile ground for literature, especially for British literature - indeed it’s arguably a literary genre of its own. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is written in diary form. Many readers of a certain age will be reminded of a diary that helped them through their adolescence - Adrian Mole’s teenage years were memorably recorded for posterity by Sue Townsend. Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is written in diary form; Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones was a famously keen diarist, as was Barbara Covett, the narrator of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal.

In US literature, Joyce Carol Oates' Zombie is written in diary form and Chuck Palahniuk’s 2003 novel Diary is just that. Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño’s magisterial Savage Detectives begins and ends searingly in diary form.

Samuel Pepys often wins arguments about who is the greatest real diarist. Anne Frank needs no introduction as a diarist of precocious talent, but Brian Eno possibly does - he’s a surprisingly lively writer. Readers of The London Review of Books have followed Alan Bennett’s diary for years. At the other end of the spectrum, Julia Cameron has spawned an entire industry with The Artist’s Way.

Readers wanting a sample of diary writing across the ages could do worse than read The Assassin’s Cloak. This anthology of diary entries, organised by calendar day, proves that, far from being a poor cousin, diary writing stands shoulder to shoulder with other forms of literature. The title is from a quote by William Soutar, who became one of literature’s greatest diarists even though he was bed-ridden - evidence that a great diarist doesn’t necessarily need to lead an eventful life. Soutar wrote, “A diary is an assassin’s cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen.”

Can you add to our list? Who are your favourite diarists? What’s your favourite diary-novel? Do you keep a diary? How often do you write in it? What kind of diary do you prefer?

Leave a comment below and join the conversation.

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