A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip by Alexander Masters
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I've always found other people's diaries fascinating in theory, but in practice they tend to be pretty dull stuff. Most people chew over the same ideas with a dreary repetition, or else they only write when they are in a bad mood. The portrait tends to be skewed either way.
The most entertaining diaries present a self who has an idea of who he or she is, but is showing the reader someone quite different. The modest genius who spills gallons of ink on humbly reciting miniscule personal accomplishments. The argumentative person who insists that the real problem is everyone else.
What makes A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Dumpster by Alexander Masters (in the British edition, "Found in a Skip") a fun read is that Masters knows all of these things, but the diarist he discovers doesn't. And yet the mysterious diarist also knows plenty the author has no clue of - his or her gender, age, class, identity....
In places, Masters wants to pontificate over his find more than he wants to discover the identity of his mysteriously discarded diarist. This drags the book very slightly (and thanks to his wife for pointing this out to him!), but his narrative voice is one that I immediately liked because of his knack for describing others in a way that makes them seem fascinating and unique. Especially when they are as fascinating and unique as "Dido [Davies] - a historian, and award-winning biographer, author of two sex manuals under the pseudonym 'Rachel Swift' and the only person in the world who knows where the bones of Sir Thomas More are buried" (page 5). You can't beat a real-life character like Dido.
And in spite of a few dumb parts (handwriting analysis woo-woo), I enjoyed the piecemeal reveal of the secret identity of the overly prolific diary keeper. Although the book has left me with the squirm-inducing thought of how a random self-selected biographer in the future might look at my angsty teenage scribblings. Not a pretty picture.
In spite of it all, Masters has sifted a bit of gold from 148 notebooks packed with dross.
"Diaries are terrible liars. They record dramas out of context, encourage paranoia, rearrange facts, are deliberately biased and self self-justifying, blind you with irrelevance, sensor alternative opinion, exaggerate petty complaints into tragic emblems and, in particular, wallow in the fact that any fool can write about dejection, but describing happiness takes determination and skill." - 81
"Most people sound unbalanced in their diaries (if those diaries are honest), because that's one of their purposes: to let out unspeakable things for a little runaround." - 167
"The diaries teach us that it is too much to be inside anybody's head. It is a horrible place. All that repetition; that endless analysis that doesn't analyze, just mulls a point over and over until it drops dead from banality. What goes on in a persons brain is the opposite of what makes a story live." - 198