Reading Writers’ Letters & Diaries: What’s the Draw?

When we are young, our diaries and journals are filled with the silly and the dramatic, heartbreak and humor. Our letters to pen pals and grandmothers are much of the same, recounting our adventures and missed opportunities, sharing our crushes and cringe-worthy moments.

But at some point in our lives, our private notes and correspondence become more sentimental than sappy, and more profound than pointless. They’re filled with reflection and creativity, dreams that reach toward reality, and musings that are a handwritten extension of our ever-evolving hearts, souls, and minds.

Perhaps this is why we readers are fascinated with the journals and letters of our favorite authors nearly as much as their published works. On my shelf sit a dozen or more anthologies and collections of this deeply personal and highly enlightening content, from the popular blog turned coffee-table book Letters of Note and Babette Hines’ Love Letters, Lost, a curated collection found at flea markets and auctions, to Sally Bayley’s The Private Life of the Dairy: From Pepys to Tweets and a trio of books from Laura Ingalls Wilder (my favorite): On the Way Home, West from Home, and The Selected Letters of Laura Ingalls Wilder (compiled by William Anderson).

For years, we have been reading the personal papers of American leaders, politicians, and writers, from John and Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, and John Steinbeck, to Ernest Hemingway, Jackie O, and Emily Dickinson. Historians and archivists around the world rejoice in discovering dusty boxes of yellowed and worn missives and manuscripts, as it’s prime fodder for their next research project or museum exhibit. So why do letters and diaries enthrall us so much, even when there are seemingly no more secrets left to share?

Babette Hines says, “Perhaps it is the act of putting pen to paper or the time required to distill thoughts into written word, but what emerges from the process is the truth.” Yet in the article “What You Won’t Learn from Writers’ Letters,” Benjamin Hedin reminds us that often we end up with banal observations and condensed versions of major life events. That being said, even the minutia and memory cataloguing creates a closer connection to these authors, and often, it’s useful for the everyday reader and the scholar to revisit their works with new understanding or clearer interpretation of the text. Many authors’ novels or stories contain biographical elements, and their letters and diaries can provide extra nuggets for context or character insight.

So the next time you’re browsing the library book sale or a used bookstore, keep an eye out for that worn journal or box of snail mail. You just might open a whole new chapter.

-Jenna Sauber

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to content