By now, online journaling apps and sites seem like the standard way to keep a diary. People who write with pen and ink in their diaries may resemble those nostalgia-seekers who make a show of collecting phonographs, rotary telephones, or manual typewriters. But the book-diary endured for centuries, and it’s intriguing to imagine a fresh use for this form even in the age of live blogs, fake news, image blotting out text as the primary carrier of meaning, and shrunken attention spans.
The diary, a highly adaptable structure, has fitted itself over time to many human endeavors: religious and spiritual seeking, social connections, psychotherapy, scientific data-gathering, literary experiments, and philosophical contemplation.
Diaries can provide companionship for the solitary traveler and an attentive, non-judgmental listener at times when no other support is available. Diaries bear witness to history on a grand scale and preserve key moments in personal or family history. Diaries open a space where the writer can rehearse her resistance to social pressures—or build up strength to take a public stance on a challenging moral issue.
Can the digital diary—often a live blog or social media account that chronicles its author’s life by the hour—serve a similar range of purposes? Does its electronic format represent a necessary adaptation to the contemporary era, or will it kill off the aspects of the diary that offer the most value? For example, the digital diary doesn’t stay in the place where it was written. It probably won’t be discovered by chance a hundred years from now in an attic by people living in the place that the diary describes.
But so far, print books have not become obsolete in the advent of e–books. We need not assume that the next phase of the diary’s history will involve converting them all into digital files stored in data warehouses. Maybe the diary will live through this century and beyond while maintaining its home in the realm of paper and ink.
If it does evolve as a primarily digital and online form, will the diary re-energize and thrive on its metamorphosis into a curated collection of instantly-available quips and images, or will it—akin to the “slow foods” movement—find some way to reclaim the benefits of concentrating attention for a longer time, reflecting and exploring ideas through writing, with entries that even dare to wait a little, flirting with obsolescence, before their release to the eyes of a worldwide audience?
The diarists of today will define the diary of tomorrow. Like the mythical figure of Proteus, the diary has shown that it can shift its shape to counter each new challenge. Let’s think about our practices and choices. What will the new shapes of diary-making mean for our personal journey, our future readers, even for history?
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