Transcribing mundane occurrences seems a contemporary habit, one that technology has enabled and expanded through digital connectivity, but this type of writing is about four hundred years old.

Personal writing was enabled by literacy, and the availability of paper and ink at reasonable cost, which allowed people to write about their own lives, in letters and in diaries. With the advent of personal writing, documenting the minutiae of daily life became customary.

Adam Nicholson describes the evolution of this genre through the diary of Ralph Josselin, a farmer and vicar, in which everything Josselin expressed carried the same significance: falling off a horse, standing in a puddle of water, the treatment of a bee sting.

The purpose and role of such extensive and thorough noting is, according to Adam Smyth, an acknowledgement that God may intervene in ordinary life. For Josselin, a Puritan, all the markers of God’s presence in the world, and in a humble existence, are necessary in order to interpret, to decipher, the probable path and ultimate outcome of one’s own life.

Writing is a determination of meaning, it prioritizes significance in hierarchies worth the creative effort and reflection. The physical act of writing organizes and sets the order of that meaning. It also determines the value of the text being read, of being re encountered, and of being reinterpreted, either to another or to the author-self.

Diaries are loaded with meaning. Not just a record of a day, either good or bad, but an unburdening; the utterances serve to mitigate distress, to rectify wrongs, to an uncritical reader: the diarist and author.  Even today the diary is close to the original personal writing that Josselin invented.

Even though they record the ordinary and trivial: the frustration of standing in a queue, or an unpleasant bitter coffee, the updates made on social media platforms are not like Josselin’s (or any of his contemporaries) everyday journal.

The motive is not the same. The act is facile. It is a personal expression, or more properly an individual assertion which reflects society now. Just as gossip in not conversation, tweeting an impression, the pleasure of meeting an old friend, or an upgrade on a flight, is without a teleological foundation, which grounded everything Josselin committed to paper.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.


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