There's a satisfyingly voyeuristic aspect to reading an author's diary or journal. The words were written without an audience in mind (we presume), so there's a feeling of intimacy and candor in the writing. In the reading...a slight sense of intrusion. That feeling lingers whether you snuck into your little sister's room to read her diary years ago, or you just dove into the published diaries of a great mind. The only difference is that your little sister may catch you.
Many published diaries emerge only after their author has passed away, serving as a sort of postmortem character study. These collected musings help us to understand great minds at work in a harsher, or sometimes, more forgiving light. The selection of journals below, now compiled in book form, are by individuals who have led remarkable, embarrassing, humorous, troubled, and thoughtful lives. As guests with a view into these intimate correspondences, we appreciate them for their peculiar and universal reminders of our shared humanity.
For guidance on taking your own journal practice to the next level, discover new installments in Dr. Rita D. Jacobs' Biographile series "From Journal to Memoir" every Tuesday.
"The Journals of Spalding Gray" edited by Nell Casey
The theater actor and writer Spalding Gray died in 2004 after committing suicide. Years later the editor Nell Casey delved into 5,000 pages of Gray's notebooks and letters, with entries beginning in 1967, when the 25-year-old man worked as a regional theater actor in Houston, and lasting until his death. Casey also interviewed his friends, family, and colleagues to pin down a complete portrait of the charismatic and tortured man. The journals are a very honest -- and sometimes difficult -- look at Gray's struggle with celebrity and depression. For a man who used his personal life in his art, the journals reveal the difficulty of balancing what's private and what belongs on stage. Despite the dark turns, Gray also chronicled his extensive travels through Europe and Asia, his rise to success out of the New York art scene in the 70s, and his overarching love of theater. Casey was able to craft a thoughtfully rendered presentation of emotionally loaded and moving text.
"Mortified: Real Words. Real People. Real Pathetic" by David Nadelberg
This is as close to your little sister's diary as you're going to get. In "Mortified," author David Nadelberg has compiled a collection of letters, essays, and diary entries written by miserable teenagers. These entries cover everything from prom, to drugs, to feeling different, to Duran Duran fan fiction, and to any and all sexual mishaps. Entries are introduced by the now-adult authors, looking back at the words they wrote as angst-y adolescents. It's funny, it's painful, it's just what being a teenager is all about.
"The Assassin's Cloak: An Anthology of the World's Greatest Diarists" by Alan and Irene Taylor
If you're hesitant to settle in with an individual's long-form journal, this 710-page compilation offers a diverse array of honest, thought provoking work by writers, businessmen, barons, actors, musicians, philosophers and more. With each entry the reader jumps from century to century, from the writings of a European Jew in the midst of the Holocaust to the English playwright Noel Coward's experience at a Beatles concert. (There's also a short biography for each author at the end of the book.) The revealing nature of each entry makes this a worthy collection for anyone with an strong interest in the form.
"Notebooks, by Tennessee Williams" edited by Margaret Bradham Thornton
Last year marked the 100th anniversary of brilliant playwright Tennessee Williams' birth. During his lifetime, he wrote plays, short stories, novels, poetry, essays, and screenplays. He also kept a dairy, recorded in "Notebooks," from 1936 to 1958 and then from 1979 to 1981. His writing is self-reflective and intimate, covering his day-to-day life in all of its mediocrity and excitement. The work reveals Willaims' preoccupation with himself, but still, he doesn't mention his accomplishments or divulge much information about his plays. The writing is rather a meditation on existence: “I don't understand my life, past or present,” he shares in "Notebooks," “Nor do I understand life itself.”