The author has written several books about diaries; she teaches a course on memoir writing; and here she gives advice "on keeping a journal" (which is her subtitle) and on how to read them. As a regular diary keeper myself for over 70 years (I started at 16), I was interested in what she might have to say. In Part One of the book she quotes what a lot of diarists - well-known ones as well as obscure ones - have said about what they thought their diaries did for them. Some of that, even if written by acclaimed diarists, sounds pretty pretentious to me, but then people write diaries for all sorts of different reasons. Myself, I recognize the following reasons or combinations of them:
1. To record thoughts one does not dare to avow publicly. That is, I would think, the most common reason why people start proper diaries as children or teenagers. They make for locked diaries, not intended to be read by anyone else - either because they let off steam against parents or siblings (that was certainly the origin of my own), or because one has ideas which one fears might be mocked by others if they were laid bare.
2. To provide self-analysis, very common from teenage years onwards. What do I really think about myself? What is it about me that prevents me from getting on top of my problems or from having satisfactory relationships? Some act as a confessional. Again one would not feel happy if other people read them.
3. To record one's philosophical or spiritual journey through life.
4. Occasionally a diary is an occasion for narcissism.
5. To serve as an aide-memoire, so that later you can recall things that you might otherwise have forgotten. Such diaries become increasingly valuable to oneself as one gets older. They can also be rather embarrassing as one matures, and that may be another reason why one wants to keep them secret - unless, of course, one is mature enough to smile wryly at what one once was and is prepared to allow others to smile as well.
6. To record events or experiences in one's life that are out of the ordinary run of one's life. That often leads to patchy diaries, kept only to record, for example, one's travel experiences abroad, one's baby's first few years, or episodes that one knows at the time are likely to be are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Increasingly, some people find it helpful to keep diaries of their terminal illness.
7. There are professional diaries in which, say, a theatre- or concert-goer keeps a record of performances, with appraisals, he or she has attended. Such diaries are also kept by some naturalists.
8. Or there are the professional diaries which jot down personal experiences, impressions or descriptions that might be used in future writings which may or may not be about oneself: autobiography or memoir in the one case; fiction, perhaps even poetry, in the other. (Much of Part Three of the book is about this.) For many of the people mentioned in this book a diary or journal is simply an early, if not the earliest, form in which the urge to write manifests itself and which, if it is done well, will lead to a successful career as a writer. For such, as for the author herself, diaries and journals are consciously crafted into an art form, into literature.
9. At some stage a diarist might become aware that he or she is having a career that could be of such interest that it ought to be recorded for posterity at large. Political diaries are one case in point. These may be reasonably detached or they may be self-important, self-serving, or justifying oneself for what one has done.
10. Related to this are diaries deliberately intended for the next generation of one's family, though these tend to be memoirs rather than diaries. These, too, tend to be written at a later stage of life, and are often triggered by regret that one's own parents or ancestors did not record their life-stories, and that it is now too late to retrieve them. One is sorry that one had been too little interested to have asked them about their past when they were still alive. (Some people, like me who have no children, write only for their own eyes and wish them to be destroyed after their death: they have no wish to leave a trace other than what others may remember of them.)
Most of these types of diary are discussed somewhere in the book. But Alexandra Johnson also discusses journals. She tells us on page 28 that we should use the words "diary" and "journal" interchangeably, and of course they do sometimes merge. Yet many of her descriptions are of writings that I would not call diaries at all, but are the type of creative writing that might be called "à la recherche du temps perdu", taking an incident or an object to trigger associated ideas of the past, working away at them in a quasi-psychoanalytical way, or even to imagine stories about them. She gives technical suggestions of how to evoke such associations, how to look for them deliberately, whereas in my mind a diary does not call for that particular kind of effort. In Part Two she recommends the same techniques for re-reading one's old diaries, for digging for what had been left out at the time, using them not only for signs of development but also for rather strenuous self-therapy or at least for self-examination. It's not something that every journal keeper would want to do. But the examples she gives of what this approach has done for other journal keepers are often moving.