Michael Palin, Diary Ambassador

I have been terribly remiss in posting new stories to this blog. Ironically, my radio silence is due to the fact that I have been busy teaching — and this semester my teaching is strongly centered around diaries. My students have been reading diaries, diary fiction, and diary criticism — and they’ve been using the digitized diary index on this blog to do their own original research on manuscript diaries. So, I’ve been thinking a great deal about diaries and about the teaching of diaries … but that doesn’t leave me much time to write here. I hope to rectify that — I’ve got a list of diary-related stories that have come across my desk the past few weeks that I am eager to post — but, let’s face it, every semester has the habit of chewing me up and spitting me out, and this one is no different.

What brings me out of my temporary blog retirement is this article by the incomparable Michael Palin about his 46-year-long diary writing habit. Palin writes,

That’s the attraction of a diary. It remains in its own time. It reflects only what happened on that particular day. It doesn’t flatter and it isn’t influenced by what happened later. In that way it’s the most truthful record of real life, and that’s why I’m so glad I persevered with it – writing an entry most mornings right up to today.

The article describes one of his idiosyncratic diary-writing habits, which is to write the diary on one side of each page, and then turn the diary upside down and continue the diary on the back side of each page. I love details like that, that demonstrate the crazy inventiveness of diary writers.

I wasn’t aware that Palin was a diarist — or that he has published several volumes of his early diaries already. Now, he’s embarking on the The Thirty Years Tour, a one-man autobiographical performance in which Palin reflects on his famously accomplished career. As a result of the key role that the diaries play in this project, Palin had made himself into a kind of diary ambassador, testifying to the value that diary-writing has added to his life and advocating that everyone else should take up the habit too. Here he is on his blog, in a video about how to start writing a diary. What a sweetheart. If I were not already smitten with Mr. Palin for all the years of Monty Python humor, I would be really sunk now.

The Guardian (which published the article by Palin) invited readers inspired by the story, to upload pictures of their diaries: a crowd-sourced mini-history of the diary. Thank you,The Guardian, for your strange and reckless devotion to covering the diary beat.

Diary Tweets: Trapper Bud’s Diary

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It’s a pretty common perception that social media platforms like blogs and Facebook are modern iterations of the diary. You’ll see that argument made by academics who study contemporary life writing, by journalists who are interested in the development and use of social media, and by bloggers and Facebook-ers themselves. These different forms of self-expression have some things in common: they are self-disclosing records of life, often daily, usually mundane, and sometimes extremely private. There are obvious differences, of course — differences that have been analyzed closely by literary critics — notably that social media makes the text available to an audience of strangers and that the audience engages with, responds to, and essentially collaborates on the text.

Twitter, however, seems to be of another species altogether. Generally speaking, Twitter is less about individually recorded lives and more about conversation, debate, and sharing. You are much less likely to encounter the argument that Twitter is like, in any way, a diary — and I tend to agree with that distinction. If I were to make analogies, I would be more likely to compare Twitter to a telegram, to newspaper headlines, or to the running scroll at the bottom of the TV screen — short, impersonal announcements about events occurring in the public sphere.

Derryl Murphy is breaking down such distinctions with his @TrapperBud Twitter feed, where he is tweeting his grandfather’s diary. Bud Murphy was a trapper in the Northwest Territories in the 1920s and 30s and kept a daily record of his experiences. Derryl illuminates Bud’s narrative with illustrations and occasional commentary on his grandfather’s life. Here’s a post from Derry’s blog discussing the Twitter project. It is an intriguing use of Twitter: part recovery, part publication, part personal narrative. Plus, Bud lived a really incredible life — the kind of life that seems increasingly impossible in our world, one tied to nature and nature’s rhythms. I would love to know more about why Bud kept the diary in the first place. In the meanwhile, I look forward to seeing Bud’s “voice” intermingling with other tweets in my Twitter feed.

Guantánomo Diary

In 2005, Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote a 466-page, 122,000 word diary describing his detention in Guantánomo. He remains imprisoned there today. Amazingly, in 2012, his lawyers succeeded in declassifying the document. His Guantánomo Diary is now available in bookstores.

For more on how the diary came to be published, The Guardian‘s “Guantánamo Diary: How a classified, handwritten manuscript became an extraordinary book”

To read an excerpt, or to hear Stephen Fry read it to you, also from The Guardian:
“Guantánamo Diary: ‘They made me drink salt water. The chains stopped the circulation to my hands and feet'”


The Guantánomo Diary houses a rich archive of materials:

  • a partially animated documentary explaining Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s case.
  • a link to the entire handwritten manuscript, including redactions
  • a series of audio recordings of celebrities reading from the text.

The New York Times Jan 20. 2015: “Family Seeks Release of a Guantánamo Detainee Turned Author”

The American Civil Liberties Union: “Guantánamo Diary: An Epic for Our Times” and a call to action to sign the ACLU-led petition to Free Slahi.

In the News: Keeping a Necrology

Physician John Henning Schumann describes his practice of recording the names of all the patients he has treated who have died, a kind of adapted diary which he calls a necrology:

In everyday medical care, the practice of reflection is too often overlooked. Remembrance is what makes us human. Somehow, keeping tabs on who has died over the years keeps me humble. It also reminds me that in spite of all of medicine’s marvels, and whatever I might be able to do, our patients all eventually die.

Read Dr. Schumann’s essay here, via NPR.