John Mullan in New Statesman:
Why keep a diary? An absorbing and sometimes droll new exhibition in London surveys the history of diary-keeping, particularly over the past century, and gives sometimes contradictory answers to this question. It is a collaboration between the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College and the Great Diary Project, the latter dedicated to rescuing and archiving a growing collection of diaries. The emphasis is on “ordinary” diarists, and on the ways in which keeping a diary has been changing over recent decades. In earlier centuries, the point of keeping a diary was to give a minute account of yourself to God. Diary-keeping was closely related to the growth of Protestantism. No wonder that those Protestant protagonists of 18th-century novels, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, take so readily to diaries. Self-recording signalled religious self-inspection. The purpose remained powerful even as religious devotion waned. When he recommended logging 13 virtues a day, Benjamin Franklin was attempting an Enlightenment version of this. When he recorded his whoring as well as his intellectual conversations, James Boswell was not only boasting, but also puzzling over his own sinful nature.
Diary-keeping was therefore a discipline. Samuel Johnson recorded his need for a diary in order “to methodise my life, to resist sloth”. But then he never did it. This exhibition shows the uninitiated how diary apps can now make that struggle with sloth much easier. Sign yourself up, and the software will weave information about your whereabouts, the weather and contemporary events into your record. Just a few words from you can make an entry look rich. Modern diary-writers can bring to the form some of the self-seriousness that was quite proper in an earlier, religious age. A magnificently solemn quotation from Susan Sontag adorns one of the walls. “I know I’m alone, that I’m the only reader of what I write here,” she announces – to herself. “. . . I feel stronger for it, stronger each time I write something down.” Among the handful of celebrity diarists whose work is on show, the actor Kenneth Williams has something of the fierce purpose of self-investigation. A few pages of his copious journals display, in his appropriately fastidious script, his social unease, his frequent ennui and his fascination with his every physical ailment.