Monday, September 22, 2008

Reflections on Pepys

Having spent the past week maintaining a diary, especially in terms of my writing activities, I have to say that I have a new regard for Samuel Pepys. I was so busy last week that I found it hard to find the time to write the diary at the end of the day -- which is why, incidentally, the dates for each entry do not always match the date of publication. Consequently, it was difficult for me to recall what had happened, or upon which day it happened, or the sequence of events on a particular day. This despite having access to a plethora of means by which I could record my activities more or less as I was going along.

In fact, I wonder if that is half the trouble? Pepys maintained his diary despite a complete absence of even the most basic technologies we take for granted. When I want to ensure that I remember something later on, I tend to jot it down in a pocket notebook, with a ballpoint pen. What did Pepys do? Whip out a quill and a sheaf of paper?He must have been a remarkable man to have engaged in all the activities he did, arrive back home from having walked everywhere if his accounts are to be believed, have supper and then write it all down before it became too dark, or until his eyes hurt from straining under the candlelight.

Unless, of course, he was cavalier with "the truth".

I say that not because I have any reason to believe he was, other than my own experience of trying to recollect everything in detail. I'm not sure I succeeded. On several occasions, having spent quite a long time trying to remember stuff, I took the view that in the total scheme of things it didn't matter that much if I had the idea for a new article on Wednesday or Thursday.

I also knew that, as others would be reading the diary (because it was being written for the Society of Authors), perhaps it would be of interest only to myself if I had two cups of tea rather than three (so I omitted that sort of detail), or if I went to a training event on one day rather than the next.

All of which made me start to ponder:

  • Did Pepys have a feeling that his diaries would be read by people from all over the world, for generations to come? And if so, did he write them as a journalist rather than a diarist, if that makes sense?
  • Did the absence of technology such as ballpoint pens affect the accuracy or detail of what he wrote, in terms of what he could actually recall of the day's events? I think it's worth saying here an obvious point, but one easily overlooked, that Pepys himself would not have been aware of the absence of the technology. It's only in retrospect that people marvel at how previous generations managed to get anything done with the meagre tools available. Perhaps Pepys himself wondered how anybody ever managed with parchment.
  • Has technology made us lazy? Maybe Pepys really could remember everything, because there was no alternative: no pen, no notebook, no camera, no voice memo device, no cell phone.

Perhaps now and then it is not a bad idea to do what some schools and school districts have done occasionally, and have an IT-free day, just to give kids a taste of a bygone era in which even the simplest thing, like keeping a diary, was not necessarily that simple at all.

If you'd like to read my diary entries, start here and then read the next 4 entries. The diary runs from the 15th to the 19th September (inclusive).

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