Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Revealing diaries

I figure that when people die and leave a diary, you learn things about them that you could have never understood while they were alive.
Jack Matthews, The Gambler's Nephew

Two diaries, both discovered following the deaths of key characters in The Gambler's Nephew, prove to be vital to the plot of this Jack Matthews novel. In both cases the diaries reveal dimensions of their authors' characters unrealized by those who knew them while they were alive. One man turns out to be better, or at least more introspective, than he appeared while alive; the other is revealed as being even worse than anyone imagined. The novel includes excerpts from both diaries.

A diary is also central to the plot of Graham Moore's The Sherlockian, reviewed here a couple of days ago. The novel actually has two plots, running more than a century apart. In one Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, reveals explosive details about one of his own attempts to solve crimes in the Holmes manner. In the other, that missing diary is discovered, revealing things about Doyle the finders wish had stayed hidden.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
In real life, too, diaries prove revealing, which is why biographers and historians love them. In The Road to Character, David Brooks writes about what Dwight D. Eisenhower's diary revealed about him. He had a terrible temper but learned to use his diary to control it. Rather than express his anger in public, he would confide it to his diary, naming names and giving reasons he would reveal to no one else. That famous Ike smile was often used to hide his anger, a trick he learned from his boxing coach at West Point.

Brooks also tells us that another World War II general, George Marshall, decided against keeping a diary "because he thought the exercise might cause him to focus too much on himself and his own reputation, or on how others might view him in the future." He also declined to write his autobiography. If others wanted to write about him, they would have to do it without his help.

I kept a journal for a few years during my youth, eventually giving up the practice not because I thought it revealed too much about me, should anyone else ever read it, but too little. It seemed like most days I recorded little more than weather reports and baseball scores. I apparently I wasn't able to reveal much about myself even to myself.

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