Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries by Thomas Mallon

The small cabinet over my refrigerator is full to the brim with those wonderful black-and-white school composition notebooks. They are the journals that I have been writing in for years. Interspersed with that lot are other spiral bound notebooks, a few 'pretty' journals, and even some loose-leaf pages kept from an ill-fated attempt to keep a diary using a three-ring binder. 

I also have a drawer that holds journals that were started for a particular reason and abandoned - perhaps kept on a short trip or as the beginnings of a commonplace book. 

All this leads me to Thomas Mallon's A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries.  I first read it soon after its publication date in 1983. It is a book that I have been wanting to reread and finally got around to doing just that last month.

I had been sporadically keeping a journal for years before I first read this book - I still have two of the little diaries with locks from high school - but Mr. Mallon introduced me to people who were like-minded in wanting to keep a record of their days. 

Here were writers, artists, preachers, politicians, crooks and even an assassin who felt compelled to make note of their thoughts, dreams, desires, and events happening not only in their private lives but in the world around them. 

So we have samples from the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf, Degas, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Thoreau. There are also entries from a whole raft of everyday people. Mr. Mallon has gathered all these keepers of the word into sections: Chroniclers, Travelers, Pilgrims, Creators, Apologists, Confessors, and Prisoners.  

This is not a series of entries one after the other. Mr. Mallon entertains the reader with his own witty and insightful comments and connections on the entries and their compilers. This book helped me to expand my own journals into more than just whining about whatever particular inconvenience life was handing out at the moment. I found reading this book to be a fascinating look into the minds and lives of so many. Fascinating, even more so now, rereading it some decades later and after many hundreds of journal entries of my own. 

My own journal keeping has developed, or maybe I should say declined, in the past few years to more of a nightly list begun as a way to remind me that I actually do accomplish some things each day. But I was inspired by one of the diarists in Mallon's book, Toni Bentley, a corps member of the New York City Ballet who kept a journal for one Winter Season begun on November 21, 1980 and finished on February 15, 1981. She used it to assess her career in dance and her commitment to her art. 

So I hunted up this attractive journal that I had tucked away for a special occasion...

...and began keeping what I am calling A Winter Journal on November 1, 2014. 

Of a late afternoon, I sit at my desk overlooking my small front yard and ponder and muse and write about whatever strikes my fancy. It may be a page describing the items on my desk, two pages bemoaning my fate at the mechanical problems my Jeep is experiencing (and have thankfully been repaired), or it may just be a list of cities I still want to visit. 

I might also include observations on the weather, the light, the leaves piling up, or the red cardinal at rest on the rim of the French blue birdbath. 

I write with a comfortable Lamay fountain pen that I purchased on a trip to Savannah a couple of years ago. (Fountain pens are my one weakness!) The pages are smooth and lined and the book has a nice heft to it so I know I mean business. I bought this one and a red one like it ages ago. I only paid $7 for each one. Now I wish I had bought a few more.

I realize this post has turned out to be more about me than A Book of One's Own, but I highly recommend Mr. Mallon's look at diaries and the people who keep them. It just might inspire you to pick up a notebook and begin to write. 


  1. I read and enjoyed this book back in the 1980s, too. I've always loved reading diaries. I've kept a journal off and on since 5th grade, when someone attempted to bribe me with a pale blue 'Diary' with a lock to either stop biting my fingernails or stop sucking my finger (which I continued to an embarrassing age). My journals are varied, like yours are, and at the moment are in two cardboard file boxes. No one would ever mistake them for literature, and a reader might wonder if nothing of importance happened in the world during the 50+ years I've kept them. My entries are mostly things that happened to me and have been declining in interest through the years. There was a time when my life was too adventurous for general publication, so I've left instructions that my journals be burned after I'm gone. Or maybe I'll just edit out the interesting parts! I love fountain pens, too, and most of my journals were written with fountain pens. I haven't tried a Lamay, though, but I'm in Boston at the moment and near a lovely pen store, so .....

    1. Hope you are enjoying your stay in Boston, Joan. A pen store? My heart be still. We don't have such a thing here in Louisville, but I still have the fountain pen I bought at a pen shop in Paris and also one from The Pen Shop in London. Good times!

      Ah, yes. What to do with the journals. I have often pondered this. Burning them seems the best route and I wonder if I should do this before I pass on just to make sure no one peeks! I sometimes think I will read through them but then that seems too overwhelming. I quit keeping my regular, three-pages-a-day journal some years ago when my mom become ill as I couldn't bear to live that time and re-live it on the page. So now I just keep that nightly 'list' journal.

      By the way, Mr. Mallon also has a book titled "Yours Ever: People and Their Letters" which I am on the hunt for. Unfortunately, my library doesn't have it.

    2. I hadn't heard of Mallon's other book, so thank you for mentioning it. I'll add it to my TBR list.
      Bromfield Pen has been in Boston for decades. I was so happy to see that it was still here. Pens, ink, notebook, accessories! If you ever get to Boston, treat yourself! I'm afraid sometimes I overindulge!

    3. I looked at Bromfield Pen's website. Heaven!

  2. I feel very chastised as my new-year resolution of keeping a book journal lasted well into summer but something occurred to put me off track, your blog was a stark reminder that I not very good at keeping resolutions! The dozens of notes on my desk (written on the back of my daily cat calender) is living proof of that. So with fountain pen in hand filled with exotic Japanese ink I recommence..! We should all be so thankful Emily Dickinson's instructions (burn my work!) was not followed. Thanks Belle as ever!

    1. Don't feel bad, Tullik. I just discovered a notebook dated 2013 that I started as a list of Books Bought. There were just a few entries and then the notebook was abandoned. Happens all the time. The nice thing about a journal is you can just pick up where you left off.

      I am intrigued...exotic Japanese ink??

    2. Hi Belle,
      A few years ago when I got back to using a Fountain Pen, I had a hard time finding ink. As I live in a remote area an on-line search was a challenge. Eventually I found a Japanese ink with rave reviews from fountain-pen experts. A little pricey at about $25 a bottle (50ml) but they produce a wonderful assortment of colours i.e. exotic purple "Myrasaki-Shikibu" and with care and judicious use they last a long time, worth investigation.

    3. Thanks, Tullik. The majority of my fountain pens are of the cartridge refill kind. But, I do have a few dip pens. One is glass and comes from Italy and a couple are vintage that belonged to my grandfather. I will investigate. Thank you so much. Myrasaki-Shikibu sounds wonderful!

    4. Bell, you can get a cheap ink converter for a few dollars and use bottle ink, its very easy to install, you should check it out. I switch between cartridges for everyday use (cheaper) and bottle ink for special occasions.

  3. This sounds vaguely familiar, and I may have read it at some point. I love reading published journals and letters. I'm fundamentally nosy, I guess.

    I also have a collection of old journals of my own, all mismatched, and stacked on a shelf in my closet. I don't know if anyone would be interested in reading them after I'm gone--and I'm sure there's plenty of "burnable" comments in them, as I've always let myself go freely in my journals. I currently write in my journal (or do Morning Pages a la Julia Cameron) a few days a week, but not every day. I quite like the look of your journal, and there's something to be said for the feel of a journal in the hand. My last one was leather covered, and just the right size and feel. My current one is a good size, but not as comfortable in the hand.

    1. Kathy, we are so picky about our journals and pens, aren't we? Maybe discriminating is a more elegant word.

      Have you heard of the book "The Assassin's Cloak"? I have most likely mentioned it before. It is a daily dip into diaries of all sorts of folks. I plan on using it for one of my morning readings this coming year. A great way to start the day reading about what other people were pondering that same day years ago.

      Your mention of Julia Cameron reminds me that I want to start in again reading and working through "The Artist's Way". I have several of her books on my shelves. I can't seem to resist buying them. Keep writing!

    2. I don't think I've read The Assassin's Cloak. I hope you'll write about your reading in it next year. Speaking of that, I will be reading the book you sent me at the end of last year--The Shape of a Year. I'm quite looking forward to it!

    3. Kathy, "The Assassin's Cloak" is a great way to read from many diaries in one place. If you ever decide to buy a copy, go for the hardback edition. It is quite thick. I was given a paperback copy and returned it for the hardback. Much easier to handle.

      I am sure you will enjoy Jean Hersey's look at the year. You will be able to experience the changing of the seasons since your part of the country doesn't have all four!