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The Whole World is Yawning

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

You might be able to chart the course of Western civilization — not "decline" because the votes aren't in yet — by the shift from writing diaries to posting blogs. The latter, for those who aren't computer-cursed, are "Web logs" in which a person expresses opinions, reveals feelings, laughs, rants, raves, vents spleen, spews bile, or just natters. Much like writing a column. With blogs, you, the Internet surfer, can join in by posting your responses. If feeling patriotic, you can even Blog for America (a site promoting the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean).

Diaries, by contrast, are personal, introspective, not meant to be shared, and now — apparently — old-fashioned. Some are historical and literary treasures. Others can be windows into tortured souls, like the diary of a 17th-century Massachusetts clergyman, Michael Wigglesworth, whose mission was to reprove "mad mirth" in Puritan Boston. At one point he agonized over the thought that he might have contracted gonorrhea. How he might have contracted it is a mystery to scholars, as it seems to have been to him. He debated which of two commonly accepted treatments for it to try: "physic" or marriage. He chose the latter.

There is even a diary-keeping tradition in my own family. An ancestor wrote one while living in a Gold Rush California boom town, Sacramento. It mainly tells of other people making money and follows the price of hogs. There is no evidence that the author every bought, sold, or even ate a hog. There is evidence that he never made any money.

My mother and father, both from small towns in Northern California, also kept diaries, as I learned after their deaths. My mother's covered her junior year in high school and my dad's part of his freshman year in college. Upon finding the diaries I debated whether or not to read them, finally deciding that there was no sense in trying to be a good son at this late date.

Mom and Dad did their bit to reinforce gender stereotypes. My mother's diary is filled with social events, dancing (the Charleston was a favorite), movies, complaints about school, and appreciative comments about "the Sheik" she met at a party. She tells of cutting classes — once to see a movie with her mother — and having a boyfriend teach her to drive. She even celebrated the rare academic triumph: "Made next to the highest in the ex[am]. Glad I didn't study more." Here are sample entries from my father's diary: "worked some," "hit a class or two," "more classes," and "not much doing." His idea of talking about a relationship was "Evelyn isn't bad. Nothing great," or, on a more positive note about Helen, "Some girl." After two months, he lost interest in diary-keeping, if not in Helen.

Diary-keeping died out with my generation, and many of us aren't inclined to get into blogging. For those who are, or who just want to see how far we've come from Michael Wigglesworth (or my dad), there is an easy exercise to take the measure of the medium. Pick a first name — with one exception I used my first name and those of loved ones — and run an Internet search on it, as in "Guido's blog." That one yielded several interesting responses, including from a kindred spirit who proclaimed himself "gawky and proud of it." Other searches turned up family first-namesakes who claimed to be "shedding light on a dreary existence," one who gave daily mood reports (he had a smiley face the day I checked), another who talked about "yawning, coughing, and sneezing," and a woman sharing my daughter's first name who declared that "Nothing strengthens the bonds of sisterhood like illegal acts." I also ran a search on "Bob's blog" out of curiosity about the kinds of blogs Bobs might have. The first Bob let me know that he "had a lazy day. But I was just resting up for bowling tonight." Two out of the first 10 Bobs talked about bowling. I searched no further.

I am ambivalent about blogging. Part of me likes its democratic spirit. Any fool with a computer can post or respond to a blog, and probably has. Good blogs are fun, moving, quirky, provocative, contrarian, and informative. Another part of me thinks that diarists had it right: Soul baring is best done in private, among friends, or to people who charge billable hours, not to a universe that, if not indifferent to what we have to say about ourselves, often has good reason to be.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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