The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists – ed. Irene and Alan Taylor (2001)

This is a huge compilation of diaries and journals throughout history, some entries as far back as the seventeenth century and right on up to Alan Bennett and Warhol. I have not read such a large book (in terms of actual pages) and I think if it had been a novel, it would never have crossed my home threshold. This has more than 1800 entries from more than 170 different diarists, so lots to choose from.

However, with the book set out as it is, with different diarists grouped together by daily date, it makes it much more approachable to read sections at a time. Initially, I thought I would read one date’s set of entries on that particular calendar day, but that didn’t last long as it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in reading “one more entry” and before you know it, weeks of this collection of diaries has gone past. I did, however, make it last almost one year, with some steady reading throughout the past few months.

This is one of the better diary collections that I have found: admittedly, it’s very white, it’s pretty male, and it’s very English-centric, but the book does not make claims contrary to that so you know what you are getting when you start it. And when you consider historical facts as they were, the literate part of society were white wealthy males so I imagine the multicultural multi-gender selection is just not out there in high numbers.

Back to the book:  if you enjoy reading printed journals, anything from Anne Frank to Adrian Mole, you will enjoy this selection. I found it to be fascinating to read what the various diarists were saying as the historical events unfolded around them in their “present”. This year, there was a lot of focus on King George’s abdication with Wallis Simpson – there are entries from people who were writing that at that (early December 1936) who reflect on what is happening: will he abdicate the throne? What will it mean for the monarchy? … Other interesting examples included the years of World War II as the conflict grows and gets bigger and bigger.

There is a range of people here: Samuel Pepys is regularly grumpy and having to beat his servants for one thing or another; Andy Warhol, Brian Eno, Noel Coward… All have their entries here. What is a really helpful tool with this book is the list of people whose diaries are mentioned. I was not familiar with a lot of the names and so these short one-paragraph biographies of who was who and how they fit in to the world around them was indispensable. I ended up having several bookmarks throughout the book, one where I was reading the entries, and the others scattered throughout the alphabetical biographies as I was constantly flicking back and forth to fully understand just who some of these people were. It sounds like a gimmick and a bit annoying, but it really wasn’t to me. You get into a rhythm of looking at the date of an entry, seeing who wrote it, and then if the name was unfamiliar, to flick to the back to see who they were. All that helped add much depth to the journal entry when you read it then.

Some books are “pick-up-and-put-down” and some are “read-straight-through” books. This was actually both of those – it worked either way. For me, it was better to read in big chunks so that I could remember who was who throughout the book. (There are quite a few writers whose diary are referred to several times throughout the year, so after a while, you recognized them….)

I absolutely loved this book and can’t believe it’s not more well known. Anyone interested in current or historical affairs, in eye-witness views of history, in well written short entries – they are all here.

Note: It’s called “The Assassin’s Cloak” due to this quotation: …”A diary is an assassin’s cloak which we wear when we stab a comrade in the back with a pen…” (William Soutar, Scottish poet).

2 thoughts on “The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists – ed. Irene and Alan Taylor (2001)

  1. Pingback: Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One) | Just One More Page…

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