I stumbled upon a diary for sale on Ebay, described like this:
This is the 1940 diary of an unknown female. There are 127 days of entries. It looks like there might be enough information inside to possibly research and find out who the author might be.There are also a couple of newspaper clippings inside.The diary is in good condition,considering its age,with only a few pages darkened from age,and the clippings.
It wasn’t the only handwritten diary for sale, but the bidding for this one was more intense than others. It ended up selling for US202.50. Was it the mystery of the diarist’s identity that brought out more bidders? The quantity of entries? Or interest in that year and place?
No haul of diaries can compete with the find that came into the hands of biographer Alexander Masters – a skip bin of 148 diaries covering decades in an unknown diarist’s life. His A Life Discarded (2016) relates his experience of reading through the diaries and tracking down the diarist. It’s too contrived as a quest but I found it compulsive and fascinating reading.
The significance of diaries of ancestors or the famous is more obvious, but I also understand the allure of the historical diaries of strangers. A unique account, hopefully intimate, of someone’s life in a different time and place. But there are also recent diaries for sale by the owners; I found one promising ‘punk and emo style writing’ from 2002. I couldn’t sell my own diaries on Ebay; while I’m alive, whom could they mean more to than me? What amount of money would justify not having that record of my life? To me, it would also seem voyeuristic to buy a recent diary of someone else. I would probably need an (illusory?) insulation of decades to justify my interest.
Yet this is not completely true either. Sixteen years ago when I moved from the southern suburbs to the inner-suburbs, I was walking all the time and found the streets of East Victoria Park awash with fascinating fragments, including pages from journals and letters. I collected them, along with flyers from crazy fundamentalists and political extremists. There was a page from a pink notebook once on the verge outside a run-down house on the next street from me. ‘I love you like I hate you and I hate you with a passion,’ it read, in part. A few days later, I was going past again and noticed another pink note on the ground. I bent down to pick it up and a young woman yelled at me from the house, ‘It’s not very interesting!’ I grabbed it and kept walking and felt rather guilty. When I was safely down the street and looked at it, I discovered it was a shopping list. Did she plant one or both of the notes? Did she want someone to find them?
The world’s gone digital now and the neighbourhood has gentrified. I rarely find anything interesting these days and I’ve stopped collecting.