Day by Day

On reading other people’s diaries, with recommendations worth spending time with.

A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

This is a very small book: fewer than a hundred pages, many of them covered with text for only half of their expanse. It collects thoughts and observations in concise, discrete segments of prose, often just a single sentence, as if the author, Sarah Manguso, were assembling a kind of secular devotional to document and amplify her contemplation of her days.

“I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.”

Composed as a kind of pendant to the massive diary the poet and memoirist kept for a quarter century, which runs to 800,000 words (that diary being, Manguso writes in an afterword, “the writing that stands in for my entire life”), Ongoingness is a series of reflections on her obsessive impulse to record life, her urge to memorialize it in words, in the shadow of her growing recognition of how effortlessly time evades capture. Alert enough to temper its certainties with the erosive force of time’s indifferent hand, Manguso’s museum of aperçus tells us so much about writing, love, marriage, motherhood, and mortality, with such poignant realism, that one ponders her words with gratitude and wonder. Every page seems to carry an epiphany: “Today was very full, but the problem isn’t today. It’s tomorrow. I’d be able to recover from today if it weren’t for tomorrow. There should be extra days, buffer days, between the real days.” And: “I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against.”

The Journal of a Disappointed Man

Illness is usually a private matter; a diary, too. But The Journal of a Disappointed Man, a wrenching but deeply humane diary by a young Edwardian suffering from a terminal condition, places the most private ordeal in public view — with extraordinary consequences. For anyone who has ever suffered, or seen a loved one suffer, Bruce Frederick Cummings (1889–1919) — who, two years before his death, published his diaries under the pseudonym W. N. P. Barbellion — offers a candid but ultimately uplifting portrayal of the ravages of disease and the larger mysteries of mortality. In its unsparing recapitulation of a life cut short, his diary stands as one of literature’s great monuments to endurance in the face of adversity; it is also, as Noel Perrin calls it, “one of the great affirmations in our literature.”

Diary of an Art Dealer 1918–1939

Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948–1971

This is a remarkable memoir — a keenly observed, intensely intelligent, affectionately cast diary of the last twenty-three years in the life of Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971), kept by the great composer’s factotum, colleague, and friend, the noted conductor and writer Robert Craft (1923–1915). In 1948, when Craft was twenty-five, he joined the Stravinsky household as a sort of musical acolyte to the maestro, but he soon became a confidant — indeed, a surrogate son — to the composer and his wife, Vera. In the diary entries that compose this book, Craft’s erudition in matters of music and culture illuminates with insight, wit, and at times sardonic canniness the rarefied personalities and situations he was fortunate to witness firsthand. The cast of characters that animates his journal is extraordinary, and the conversations caught by Craft make us intimates of T. S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh and Ingmar Bergman, Balanchine and Giacometti and Schoenberg, Kennedy and Khrushchev, to name a few.

War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944

June 12, 1944: Awakened by her husband at five am with news that German soldiers are in the vicinity, Iris Origo (1902–1988) spends an anxious morning with the refugee children housed at her farm in southern Tuscany. “In the afternoon,” she writes,

Kilvert’s Diary

Covering the years 1870 to 1879, the diary of the Reverend Francis Kilvert (1840–1879) is an addictive pleasure, offering an unparalleled portrait of life in the English countryside in the mid-Victorian era. Few diaries are as enjoyable to read.

The Goncourt Journal

One might say that Edmond (1822–1896) and Jules de Goncourt (1830–1870) shaped the model of the modern man of letters: By dint of informed taste and obsessively self-studied sensibilities, they — by their own lights, at least — rose above the trivialities of the bourgeois world to dwell in a state of intermittent inspiration and perpetual ennui. Their high-minded artistic ambition as determined, if unsuccessful, novelists was matched to a worldly predilection for decadent pursuits, and their Journal is a kind of conversational companion to the highly wrought soliloquies of Charles Baudelaire. As Geoff Dyer notes in his introduction to a recent reissue of Robert Baldick’s superb selection from the brothers’ voluminous diaries, the Goncourts were “self-styled ‘John-the-Baptists of modern neurosis.’” Yet for all the brothers’ self-absorption — perhaps because of it — Pages from the Goncourt Journal is a joy to read.

A Moment’s Liberty: The Shorter Diary of Virginia Woolf

“There were two Virginia Woolfs: the rather gorgeous artist and the busy, observant, ironical, everyday woman. We’re lucky to have books by both of them,” Anatole Broyard once wrote. While the gorgeous artist takes center stage in works such as To the Lighthouse and Orlando, the everyday woman displays her astonishing vitality and her intermittent but fateful anguish across the five installments of her complete diary, here admirably abridged into a single volume by Anne Olivier Bell.

“I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage & haddock by writing them down.”

Woolf began her diary in 1915, while recovering from a breakdown and her first suicide attempt, and she continued it until four days before drowning herself in the River Ouse, in March 1941. She wrote through the births and deaths of friends and relations, and through bouts of her own madness. She recorded details of weather and war, of her own writing and the shared work with which she and her husband, Leonard, built their Hogarth Press, of house hunting, of who said what at dinner. Woolf was the brightest star in the constellation known as Bloomsbury, and the “who” that came to dinner encompassed John Maynard Keynes, E. M. Forster, Vita Sackville-West, and Lytton Strachey. Many other luminaries pass through these pages, including Sigmund Freud, who, with Freudian slipperiness, presents Woolf with a narcissus.

Excerpted and adapted from the book, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. Copyright © 2018 by James Mustich. Published by Workman Publishing.

Now: Author, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. Then: publisher and chief bookseller, A Common Reader.

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