Dear Diary,

     A friend of mine kept a diary for a year in which he wrote down every night the thing that had pissed him off the most that day, or had made him happy.
     He was a cop, so a lot of things happened to him to piss him off.
     After New Year’s Day he read his diary – and couldn’t remember any of the things he’d written in it, except for late December.
     Everything that had kept him up late, had ruined his sleep, made him fight with his wife – he couldn’t remember any of them.
     Diaries reveal us – which is why it’s so hard to keep a diary.
     Charles Baudelaire, a great artist and an unpleasant man, said that the greatest bestseller ever would be a book called Mon Coeur Mis à Nu – My Heart Laid Bare – but that no one could write such a book, and no one would publish it.
     The closest an American writer may have come is the composer Ned Rorem, whose multivolume diaries show, mostly, that Rorem was a pain in the ass. Despite his talent – or because of it.
     The greatest diarist in English was surely Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps: 1633-1703), who kept a diary from 1660-69, before he became Secretary of the Navy and a Member of Parliament.
     I tried to read it many times and it always bored me to death.
     Last year I learned it was Mark Twain’s favorite bedtime book, so I tried it again.
     It’s the funniest damn thing.
     This may be because I am 60. Or because I read it only in the john, so it never gets tedious.
     But I think it’s because Pepys was one of the few, perhaps the only diarist, who truly kept his diary for himself, without thinking that anyone else would read it.
     He wrote some of it in code, so his wife couldn’t read it, and some in Spanish, for the same reason.
     It contains descriptions of the bubonic plague, and of the Great London Fire, and of the king and queen. But mostly it’s given over to trivia.
     The trivial parts are the best.
     Not just the part where Pepys’ wife caught him with his hand up the maid’s dress – and what came next – but things that you and I would forget too, a week later, but that are still fascinating 400 years later.
     How he dropped old friends to make new ones, who were more influential.
     How one of his new friends’ sword banged commoners’ shins as they strolled the streets of London, but the Lord paid them no mind, so neither did Pepys.
     Or how, on May 4, 1662, Pepys paid a barber 5 shillings to bleed him, because he felt he was “exceeding full of blood.”
     Pepys said that being drained of 16 ounces of blood was “very good,” though it made him sick and he had to lie down.
     Or that on New Year’s Eve 1661, Pepys was sorely troubled that he had been “a very great spendthrift in all manner of respects” that year. So he wrote that he had “newly taken a solemn oath about abstaining from plays and wine, which I am resolved to keep according to the letter of the oath, which I keepe by me.”
     The very next day – New Year’s Day – on his way to work, Pepys saw that “‘The Spanish Curate’ was acted today,” so he blew off work, bought a barrel of oysters and took his wife to see The Spanish Curate, “and a good play it was. Only, Diego the Sexton did overdo his part too much.”
     I think that history shows Baudelaire was wrong.
     A man who lays his heart bare will not show the wildness and depravity of the human heart. He’s more likely show how small it is.

%d bloggers like this: