The following is a guest blog post written by Batsheva Ben-Amos, coeditor of The Diary.
Two years ago, when we drafted the introduction to The Diary: The Epic of Everyday Life, we noticed a New York Times article about the discovery of a diary written by a woman in a Soviet gulag about eighty years ago, in which she described her physical and emotional hardships. Little did we know that our book would be published during a pandemic. We also did not imagine that around publication we would find another news report (also in the New York Times) about a nurse on the frontline of our coronavirus battle. She held an iPad up so a dying, isolated coronavirus patient was able to see and hear his grief-stricken relatives Skyping from the hospital corridor. After the man died, the nurse found a secluded hallway and wept. A few days later, she shared her anguish in a private Facebook message. “I’m not the kind of nurse that can act like I’m fine and that something sad didn’t just happen,” she wrote.
The coronavirus that has taken over the world is creating a classic diary-writing era. It is highly likely that many individuals experience this personal and collective disaster are turning to diary writing as a relief, a contemplation, and a testimony. In their diaries, they record the subjective experience of history: a theoretical and intellectual inquiry suddenly transformed into a reality of tragic brutality. Diaries are not always written in paradise. As the twenty-seven articles in The Diary demonstrate, historically and globally, individuals write in diaries in times of either internal or external crises. These could range from their search for self-identity in adolescence and adulthood to live in war, social conflict, political pressure, and oppression. Diaries, written for the self but also for implied or real readers, mediate between the private and the public. They help create a shared interpretation of events, a wider collective meaning, by combining the descriptions of real-time occurrences with the writer’s feelings, like the nurse.
In this pandemic, we are reminded of Samuel Pepys (1633–1703) who wrote in his diary on September 7, 1665:
Up by five of the clock, mighty full of fear of the ague, but was obliged to go . . . and find 8,252 dead in all, and of them 6,978 of the plague, which is a most dreadfull number.” Pepys also reported about silence in the streets, ruined businesses, and closed entertainment establishments, and he continued to count the dead. Today we read Pepys’s diary as a historical document.
The pandemic has changed the meaning of our intimacy, daily routines, work, and future expectations. At this point, there is still confusion, missing knowledge about the illness, and fear and uncertainty about the future. Brian Schiff, in a lecture on May 20, discussed two levels of meaning-making, or the making of the story of the crisis. The first is on the individual, psychological level, where the person interprets to himself what is happening, also known as the level of diary writing. The second level is social exchange and interaction, today likely on social media, blogs, Facebook, and online diaries. And the gathering of this information has already started. We recently received the following email message from the archivist of the University of Pennsylvania: “The human side of history: Penn’s COVID-19 Community Archiving Project aims to collect diverse voices and experiences from students, faculty, staff, and alumni as they respond and adapt to the pandemic.” They are asking for journal entries documenting people’s experiences, schedules of daily routines, blog posts, and material on social media all related to the pandemic.
Life upheaval and situations in which societal norms break down are the essences of most diary writing and, consequently, shape the style, form, and structure of the diary itself. Open-ended and unpredictable, the diary is a unique genre of literature. Despite being written by the self, about the self, and for the self under specific circumstances, the diary can still be introduced into the public space, acquiring readership and becoming scholarship.
Check out The Diary: The Epic of Everyday Life edited by Batsheva Ben-Amos and Dan Ben-Amos, available now.