On the Pepys Diary Project and the clotting of the memestream…

12/27/2002

The word/phrase ‘lazyweb’ (which I believe was coined by Matt Jones) refers to the way in which if you describe something you’d like to exist online then someone else somewhere else will build it for you. But what do you call it if you never mention it and yet someone builds it anyway? The meme-stream is getting thicker, I think. Congealing. Clotting.

Well anyway – that’s my theory for Phil’s stunning creation of the Pepys Diary Project – which is a far more elegant, thorough and well-built creation than I could ever have conceived of – let alone built. It’s essentially a republishing of the diaries of Samuel Pepys – an incredibly prodigious and thorough London-based diarist from the 1660s. He wrote over ten years worth of diaries – which including descriptions of the black plague and the Great Fire of London. Essentially each entry is to be published in ‘real-time’ weblog-format from this coming January 1st. And it comes complete with the ability to add ‘annotations’ which hopefully will be a place where people can collaboratively research and explain what’s going on in each entry… All in all it’s a stunning piece of work…

When I was thinking around this area I did a lot of research into the possibility of finding decent journal-based or diary-based out-of-copyright material – but there’s a surprising shortage of it. It seems that the form of the journal or diary is very much historically contingent. It’s a recent form of self-expression. Here’s a piece from Walter J Ong’s “Orality and Literacy” which I posted a few months ago on the matter:

“Even in a personal diary addressed to myself I must fictionalize the addressee. Indeed, the diary demands, in a way, the maximum fictionalizing of the utterer and the addressee. Writing is always a kind of imitation talking, and in a diary I therefore am pretending that I am talking to myself. But I never really talk this way to myself. Nor could I without writing or indeed without print. The personal diary is a very late literary form, in effect unknown until the seventeenth century (Boerner 1969). The kind of verbalized solipsistic reveries it implies are a product of consciousness as shaped by print culture. And for which self am I writing? Myself today? As I think I will be ten years from now? As I hope I will be? For myself as I imagine myself or hope others may imagine me? Questions such as this can and do fill diary writers with anxieties and often enough lead to discontinuation of diaries. The diarist can no longer live with his or her fiction. ” (Orality and Literacy, Walter J Ong, Routledge1982)

Still – you’d think that there would be a great many diaries that were in the public domain – ie. published between the seventeenth and roughly the late-nineteenth / early-twentieth century. But if there are, it seems impossible to find them. The most evident one available is Dracula, which is available on Project Gutenberg [Dracula by Bram Stoker] and essentially operates as a set of several arch and wordy journals. The length of each of the entries makes it far from ideal. In fact most of the material that would be ideal for weblog republishing comes much later. I’d be thrilled to be able to put the Diary of Anne Frank online, for example, and I think it could be a tremendously powerful and valuable thing to do. But that’s unlikely to be available for quite some time to come…