Sunday, November 20, 2011

Fifty diaries, illuminated by a Chico visitor


The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley houses special collections, among them a trove of personal diaries. "In acid-free boxes," writes Bancroft librarian and researcher Susan Snyder, "arranged on shelves in temperature-controlled darkness, they have come as donations, tag-alongs, bequests, purchases, or hotly contested auction lots." They "supply humor, pathos, grime, existential angst, and vision to the entirety of the human record."

Now, from the Bancroft and other sources, Snyder has assembled an extraordinary book. "Beyond Words: 200 Years of Illustrated Diaries" ($45 in hardcover from Heyday Books) gathers excerpts from fifty journals, written by the famous and the unknown, between 1776 and 1981. Snyder, a guest yesterday at Lyon Books in Chico, presents stunning color photographs of key diary pages. She also provides historical context for each diary as well as representative quotations and period illustrations.

Mark Twain is represented here, as is John Muir and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But so is a man named William E. Voigt. The two pages of his journal (at least it's attributed to him, but no one really knows who wrote it or why) are part of a large, "well-thumbed compendium" "containing the secrets to 575 feats of magic." The entry for Thursday, October 7, 1943, shows how to palm a coin.

From 1917, Snyder writes, "bits of plant fluff, grass stalks, a lock of mountain sheep hair jubilantly found in a crack in the rock face she was climbing, fern fronds, and feathers of all sort illustrate the many field diaries of Florence Merriam Bailey." Adds Snyder: Bailey was "at the forefront of the movement to use binoculars rather than shotguns to observe birds."

In 1878, 14-year-old Caroline Eaton LeConte chronicled her camping trip with her parents and best friend Nona Dibble "in Yosemite Valley and the Calaveras Grove of giant sequoias." Others were along, too, including student Charlie Butters and one Lt. Greenough. One entry: "'Come now,' said Mr. Butters with beaming eyes, ladling out the milk as fast as he could, 'don't let's let all this fine milk go to waste.' 'Don't be afraid,' returned the Lieutenant with a sort of choking gurgle in this throat, 'it'll all go to waist anyhow.'"

We are thankful for the writers who dared turn over a new leaf.

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