Have We Forgotten the Value of the Diary?

I recently finished the fantastic book by Erik Larson entitled The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. This book is a non-fiction work centered around Sir Winston Churchill during the early days of World War 2. One of the things that I was struck by as I listened to the audiobook, was how much information the author was able to glean from diaries and personal correspondence. Whether it was from the diary of Churchill’s personal aide, which gave all manner of insights into how Sir Winston acted and treated others to Mary Churchill’s diary entries telling of how the 18-year-old daughter spent her evenings dancing at clubs and spending time chasing airmen from the Royal Air Force, these diaries helped to paint a much more full picture of the life and times of Churchill.

Other examples of how diaries and letters help to tell the story of history, are the bestselling biographies, John Adams, by David McCullough and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. My mom and dad have listened to both of these recently and over and over again, they tell me about these wonderful nuggets of history that show up in these books directly from the archived letters and diaries of various historical figures. One such example is the friendship and rivalry of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. John Adams wrote extensively about how their friendship fell apart over politics and then much later in life, they were able to reconcile with one another. On a side note, these two great founding fathers died on the same day, within hours of one another, fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Not related to my point about diaries, but still a really great nugget of information.

In reflecting on all this, I couldn’t help but think about how we as Americans and perhaps even as humans, seem to have forgotten how to journal in diaries. Be it because of our fixation with technology and entertainment or our inability to be bored or whatever it is, we just do not do much of it anymore. I can’t help but think that historians will have so much digital information to dig through, tons and tons of official documentation about this time we are living in, but so little of it will be personal thoughts on day to day life.

Are we better off without the diary? Are our lives improved by not taking the time each day to write down what happened and how we feel about it? Have we forgotten how to journal in the last 75 years since Churchill’s time? Is this what regular blogging is for our time? I honestly don’t know but I do like the romantic idea of becoming a much more prolific diarist. I do know that when I take the time to journal daily, that my mind is more at ease and my thoughts less jumbled. Besides, journaling regularly will give me a great use for all these fantastic notebooks and writing instruments that I love so dearly. What a concept! If it was important to our second President and so many others, maybe it does have value after all.