Reading other people’s letters has its joys, but how much more intriguing to read their diaries or journals. Perhaps I should explain.
Once upon a time, people wrote letters to one another by putting pen to paper—often after having first written a rough draft—folding the page, putting it in an envelope, and entrusting it to snails. An answer might come back in days or weeks or never. We would find this impossible to believe if we did not have convincing evidence of it on our library shelves. I have perused the (printed) letters of Soren Kierkegaard and John Henry Cardinal Newman and those of other wise men and wiser women who we might doubt in charity ever engaged in this primitive enterprise.
Many younger readers of Crisis will find the terms “pen” and “ink” arcane, and I would despair of convincing them that pointed bits of steel stuck into wooden holders and dipped into bottles of a dark liquid were once used to make wet ebon marks upon paper—something like the characters on a computer but irregular or, as it was put, “cursively.” When the steel tip dried, it was dipped once more in the bottle, and the process continued. Grown men and women who engaged in this had the dirty fingers to prove it.
This primitive method of inditing one’s thoughts was used in both letters and diaries. Letters had an addressee, but whom was the diarist addressing? Marcus Aurelius often headed items ad meipsum (to myself), but this, of course, was disingenuous. Most diaries and journals were written with the implicit purpose of being read by someone other than the writer. Tolstoy and his wife exchanged their diaries, one reason doubtless for their tempestuous marriage, since both confided to their diary thoughts they would have been loath to voice.
This use of the diary could only have occurred to couples like the Tolstoys. Ordinarily, one’s spouse was the last person one wanted to read his diary. Benjamin Franklin, a paragon of prudence, entered his misbehavior into his diary in code. Who then was the addressee? This question, quite apart from the testimony that diaries give to a primitive method of recording words, makes them profoundly intriguing.
The painstaking slowness of this lost method of recording thought known as handwriting often introduced a reflective, meditative tone to the prose. We possess fading photographs of authors seated immobile at their desks, pen poised over paper, thinking. Just thinking. Imagine thinking while seated at a computer. Even the few seconds it takes to download a program can set us groaning with impatience. And why? Thought threatens to interfere with our computing. The fascination of diaries and journals, even more than old letters, lies in knowing that the writer actually thought before and while inking up the page. What he recorded were his thoughts about the events of a day, plans, loves, and sorrows. No wonder we feel prurient as we flip through such pages: It is as if another’s soul were being revealed to us.
Nulla dies sine linea (no day without a line) was the motto often found in diaries. A given day, its events, its connection with past and future, were brooded over by the author. It could all be very upbeat, even when woeful events were written of, as in the journal of Walter Scott, but jolly or sad, such narratives embody an assumption scarcely intelligible to us: Every life has a meaning. The random occurrences and deeds of a day are therefore worth pondering. This conviction was compatible with, perhaps even dependent on, the realization that their meaning was obscure to the diarist.
Historians can trace the loss of all this. The telegraph arrived, and then the telephone—distance writing, distance speaking. The typewriter was invented, then the photocopying machine, the fax, the Apple of discord, and all the things now so familiar to us that we cannot think back to a time when they did not exist. What about the time before electricity itself? Imagine yourself by candlelight, pen in hand, inscribing in ink your thoughts about your day. You recall what happened. You reflect on it. A sense of the mystery of your life comes over you. Your apparently unrelated, random acts of recording suggest a cumulative meaning. No wonder Providence was thought of as God writing our lives. Could anyone who kept a diary doubt that God exists? Perhaps God was the ultimate addressee. Is atheism a consequence of the demise of handwriting?