I’ve been a book reader for as long as I can remember, but as of this week — Tuesday October 25, to be precise — I will finally be a book writer.
It is thrilling to write that sentence, but as I look at it, I realize it needs to be parsed. It could be said that I have been a book writer, that is, someone who is writing a book, for longer than I’m willing to tell you (let’s just say that my book party invitation begins: “One dissertation, two children, three drafts, four trips to England, five houses, six jobs, and dozens of talks, articles, and reviews later…”). But Tuesday is the official publication date of my book, Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary, which means that as of Tuesday, I will be able to say, with no fear of dissimulation, that I am a book writer who has actually published a book.
I don’t know if all book readers want to be book writers, but writing books has been my dream for almost as long as I’ve been reading them. I still have the little stapled volumes of poems and stories from when I was just learning to write, and even before, when I still dictated. In grade school, my best friend and I wrote a murder mystery, though all I recall is the murder method: injection with a hypodermic needle full of air. Despite the fact that it has taken so long, I am as thrilled as I always imagined I would be to have my own Amazon page, to hold my own book in my hand, with my name on the cover and every word written by me.
And I’m thrilled even though I know that not very many people will read my book. My lovely, loving friends protest otherwise, but the fact of the matter is that Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary is an academic book with fifty pages of endnotes and words like problematize, totalizing, dominant discourses, imperial geographies, and domestic ideologies — and that’s just in the second paragraph.
My book, you see, is an artifact of a long-ago, faraway life. Once I was an academic who taught nineteenth-century British literature, feminist theory, and writing to college students, and whiled away sabbaticals and vacations poring over manuscripts in distant archives. Now I work with urban high school teachers, edit books, and write about contemporary literature and my kids. These lives may not sound so far apart — it’s not like I left academia to become a llama farmer or a neonatal nurse. Still, the days when totalizing imperial geographies slipped easily off my tongue seem like the days of another woman’s life.
As I’ve reread bits of my book, however, reviewing page proofs or reveling in the actual pages in my hand, I’ve realized that what feels like the core disjunction of my life is in fact not so great a shift. My book is about nineteenth-century British diaries, broadly taken, but at its heart is an argument about diaries and families, the self, and the relationship between texts and life.
Over years of research I discovered that, in the nineteenth century, many people who claimed their diaries were private actually shared them — willingly, unwillingly, or with a feigned unwillingness that hardly masked acceptance — with the people closest to them: parents, siblings, spouses, cousins, dear friends. The idea of the diary as a private receptacle of one’s deepest secrets and self was a powerful cultural notion, but that idea was largely produced by fiction, in which the diary could serve as an efficient means of accessing a character’s otherwise-unknown thoughts and feelings. In other words, the diary, I argue, did not just signify the solitary self, but served as a bridge between self and other, private and public, actual and fictional (and in the book’s postscript I suggest that today’s blogs hark back to that nineteenth-century diary model, even as today’s diaries have largely been shaped by fiction).
When I began this column, it felt like a rejection of nineteenth-century scholarship in favor of contemporary life — the here-and-now of my life and the cultural life around me. But I’ve come to see that it is in fact a sign of my persistent interest in the same set of issues about books, reading, and family — and, I should probably add, though it’s not in the column’s title, writing. Month after month, I’ve traced the way relationships to books have emerged in my own family, how family and community shape experiences of reading and relationship, how books represent family, and more.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the solipsism of American fiction, about how our fictional focus on the travails of self and family, our refusal to think big and global, is what’s keeping us from winning Nobels and — along with e-books, of course — shutting down our bookstores. Sometimes I completely agree with this argument — there’s a piece of me that’s sick to death of novels of adolescent development and domestic crisis.
And yet I still believe that, from early childhood, one’s sense of self and the world emerges from the experience of family, whether it entails embracing family, rejecting it, or, most often, some complicated mixture of the two. And as that sense of self emerges, there frequently emerges a simultaneous urge to represent it to others. Witness the popularity of Tyler Perry’s movies and Modern Family, blogs and Facebook for the persistence of these phenomena far beyond the reach of books. Meanwhile, the widespread use of diaries in contemporary children’s and YA fiction is at once a marketing ploy and the deployment of a proven conduit of consciousness and observation – and not just for girls: Diary of a Wimpy Kid , whose self-conscious diarist attacks the diary concept, even as he eventually falls for it, has brought the joy of reading to millions of elementary school boys.
Another fascinating aspect of the nineteenth-century diary is that even as it faced inward to the self and family, it also witnessed the outside world. Long before embedded reporters began sending out Tweets and live video from battle zones and disasters, journalists, travelers, and other observers used diaries as a means of sharing their experiences and opinions with others, and published diaries were often nineteenth-century bestsellers.
I’ve come to realize that this column has become my own version of a nineteenth-century diary, a place where I share personal stories, family experiences and my opinions, and where I resolutely insist upon the possibility and the value of bridging the individual reading experience and the larger social context. Maybe I haven’t left my past life behind after all. Maybe this book reader who’s become a book writer, about diary writers and readers, has come full circle, and my obscure academic book is more relevant than I thought.