For the Sake of History, Keep a Coronavirus Diary

The details you notice now will be illuminating in 30 years

Photo: FPG/Getty Images

IfIf you want to know what the Great Fire of London was like in 1666 you can look at the facts and figures — five days of burning, one-third of the city destroyed, 100,000 people homeless — or you can read Samuel Pepys’ diary:

“I [went] down to the water-side, and there got a boat and through bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire… Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river… poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses.”

For historians, this level of detail about a lived experience is invaluable to understanding what a crisis was really like on the ground. Official reports, journalistic coverage, and interpersonal correspondence all have their places in the archive, but nothing beats a diary for detailed, personal, and emotional documentation.

Obviously we produce a lot more documentation about world events today than people did in Pepys’ time. But in the age of the coronavirus, we all might consider adding to the record by keeping a pandemic diary. (Or if, like me, you already keep a diary, you might turn its focus to the ways Covid-19 is affecting life for you and your loved ones.)

Besides the fact that journaling is good for your mental health — and we could all use some stress-busting right now — your recollections of social distancing, quarantining, and perhaps even suffering from the disease, will be hugely valuable for historians of the future.

“Diaries can be an absolute goldmine for researchers,” says Declan Kiely, director of special collections and exhibitions at the New York Public Library. “I think it’s the sheer first-handedness of it — it’s the closest thing to being there.” It’s not only the details of daily life that are valuable, but the levels of ignorance and misinterpretation on display. People who kept journals during World War II, for instance, didn’t know how or when it would end. “What we’re often doing as historians or consumers of diaries is closing that distance between what we know now and what the person writing the diary knew then.”

Diaries sometimes even cast media reports in a new light. The New Yorker recently shared fragments of a diary from an anonymous crew worker aboard the coronavirus-affected cruise ship Grand Princess. She describes people dancing on deck while helicopters hovered above: “I think maybe this was to get some good footage for the media to make the situation seem better than it is.”

While we’re all furiously tweeting, texting, ’gramming, and emailing, we can’t be sure those digital breadcrumbs will be preserved for posterity (or easy for archivists to sort through, if they are). What’s more, says Michelle Krowl, a historian at the Library of Congress, “Your public posts may be written in such a way that you’re thinking of who your audience is, whereas in a journal or a diary, you may have the opportunity to be more introspective or faithful to your reality.”

Archives are full of diaries of the famous: heads of state, men and women of letters, and other notable names. These records have obvious value and can be particularly interesting to comb through to see what people didn’t know at the time that we know now. For instance, Library of Congress historian Meg McAleer points out that when President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919, but hid it from his own cabinet members, they all took to their diaries to speculate what could be wrong. “We don’t have that quality of private reflection among our public officials today,” says McAleer. “People just don’t keep diaries and also there’s a reluctance among many public officials to keep that kind of paper record account.”

But you don’t have to be a cabinet member for your diary to matter. “Some of the most poignant things we see were not written by a famous person; they were written by individuals who were compelled because they thought this was going to be an event of national interest, or they wanted to leave some record of posterity for their children,” says Krowl.

“The diarist should be willing to avoid self-censorship and be a bit of a gossip.”

Undoubtedly the most famous diary in history was written by a regular person who no one had heard of before she was published: Anne Frank. “What makes a diary really lasting is when the personal reflections and the recording of the daily activities are also linked to something broader,” says McAleer.

Though details are precious, there’s no need for entries to go on and on: Sigmund Freud kept a diary for years with entries often only a few words long. But that didn’t minimize their impact. Consider the entry about his daughter, Anna, from March 22, 1938, in Vienna: Anna at Gestapo. “You just know with those three words — you don’t need anything else,” says McAleer. “The emotion is packed in.”

Above all, a good diary is unfiltered. “The diarist should be willing to avoid self-censorship and be a bit of a gossip, recording what other people were saying, how they dressed, who they knew, who was having an affair with whom, and so on. This is the sort of level of observation and granularity that distinguishes a great diary,” says Kiely. “Also, it helps if the person is socially gregarious and interacts with a lot of people — the opposite of what we would now call social distancing.”

While writing her book Pale Rider, a history of the Spanish Flu of 1918, Laura Spinney found such accounts invaluable. Looking at diaries from different countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa, she was able to compare how different societies both understood, treated, and reacted to the disease. “There’s not that much available [for that period],” she says. “When you find one, it’s like gold dust.”

But even if our diaries don’t make it into the coronavirus history books, we may get a lot out of them for personal use.

In his partly autobiographical novel The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi writes about his put-upon English mother whiling away her evenings with the usual distractions — crap TV, knitting, doodling — as well as the more unusual rereading of “her childhood diary of the war (‘Air-raid tonight’).” The memory of the trauma seems to bring her a sense of meaning in more banal times.

Strange as it may seem, in 30 years some of us may get the same sense of meaning by turning to our diaries from this time to remember exactly what life was like under coronavirus quarantines.

I am documenting all the oddities of life right now in my own diary: the friends who had to cancel their March wedding, and the ones who are biting their nails over their May wedding. The package of “chicken backs” on sale at Whole Foods in the absence of more popular cuts. My 74-year-old father’s story of being number 150 in line at the hardware store, trying to buy disinfecting wipes for my 64-year-old mother to take on her train commutes before their region started shutting down. (They ran out before he got to the front of the line.) It’s not so different from what anyone else is going through. But that’s the point.

Deputy editor for books at Medium. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.

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