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The Sunday EssayOctober 1, 2023

The Sunday Essay: The joy of paper diaries


My appointment diary will never be replaced by apps and platforms. It is the only true record of the minutiae of my life.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Images by Tina Tiller.

I bumped into an old friend and former colleague recently. We hadn’t seen each other in years. There was a lot to catch up on: births, deaths, divorces; the usual stuff of life.

She was in a rush, but keen to meet again. “How about next Wednesday morning?” she said, checking her phone. “Excellent,” I replied, running through commitments in my head. The following day she sent me a meeting request through Outlook. The event was labelled, “Walk, Talk and Coffee”. The meeting was scheduled to start at 9.30 and end at 10.30. I had the option of replying, “Yes”, “No” or “Maybe.” I ticked “Yes.” 

I looked at my paper diary, always on my desk. For the proposed catchup, I’d scrawled, “Meet M”, with a smiley face. I’d blanked out the whole morning. In my experience, catch-ups with old friends take time. 

But the encounter made me think: when did our personal lives become so professional? And have office tools now become so much a part of our private lives that spontaneous encounters, romantic liaisons, and catchups over coffee are reduced to fit the format of an app?  Perhaps next time we meet for coffee, we will have Goals and Actions to complete. 

Like most people (apart from my brother-in-law, who refuses to engage in technology’s inexorable march towards disaster) my life has been almost entirely digitised in the past two decades. I no longer have a landline and I engage with members of the family on all their preferred apps. I click, share and post, acknowledging the benefits of convenience and speed. 

But on one thing, I remain obdurate: the importance – no, necessity – of a paper diary, the last bastion of pen and paper that reflects and records in our own hand the minutiae of our personal lives.    

December 10, 2003: Order lamb for Christmas. Will Mark do spuds?

In my bookcase, as I write, there are 23 appointment diaries. The year 2004 is missing for some reason, but the others are precisely lined up like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the family bookcase when I was growing up.

 The styles are varied. Some are businesslike black or burgundy Moleskines with soft rounded corners, a matching ribbon bookmark and ivory paper. They are functional and non-gender specific, denoting a serious period in my career as a journalist and editor when I didn’t want or need the distraction of pretty art or proverbs.

From 2007, the style changes, reflecting a more balanced lifestyle. For several years, I worked in Italy as a WWOOFer (Willing Worker on Organic Farms), so the diaries between 2008 and 2012 feature pictures of gondola, castello and basilica. From 2013, for seven years, The Reading Woman diary took over: a beautiful production by Pomegranate Publishers with portraits of women through the ages reading, accompanied by quotations.

Those who are happy enough to have a taste for reading, need never be at loss for amusement – Marie de Sévigné.

When that diary ceased to be published, I was crushed. On impulse, I branched out in a bookshop in Auckland. The Perpetual Disappointments Diary (Picador) looked quirky. The blurb implied it was the lovechild of pessimists, cynics, and losers. The Guardian described is as “cheerily depressing”; the New York Times added, “Abandon hope, all ye who buy it.” I bought it anyway.

It drove me nuts. For starters, in the year of my purchase, each page began on a Tuesday and ended on a Monday. The days weren’t labelled so I had to count on my fingers to see where Thursday fell. Motivational quotes included: “Who would play you in the fish-out-of-water, crime-caper screwball comedy TV movie of your life?” and “If you found out you only had one day to live, roughly what time would you get up?” There were contact pages for People Who Never Call, Real Enemies, and Imaginary Friends, and a New Year planning section titled The Gaping Void Ahead. I abandoned it in May. 

Last year, I bought the beautiful New Zealand Engagement Diary (Live Wires New Zealand) with illustrations by New Zealand artist Tanya Wolfkamp. This year a friend gave me Mauri Ora (Potton and Burton Publishing), a diary in te reo Māori and English, featuring whakataukī; sayings that capture generations of wisdom from te ao Māori. I love it. 

September 19, 2018: Women’s Suffrage speech at Te Aroha Lions Club

By rights, paper diaries should have disappeared with the advent of digital diaries and planners. Online apps enable us to plan and record every aspect of our lives and synchronise with others in our network. Unlike paper diaries, the space allowed for entries is never too long or too short. You can also encrypt, password protect, and otherwise lock up your personal information, avoiding someone flipping through the pages of your paper diary and seeing that you lied about a meeting after work.

But in the same way books have defied tech companies promises that e-books, apps and platforms will always and inevitably eclipse physical objects, paper diaries continue to survive and thrive. 

Jerome Corbett, head of product management at Acme Supplies New Zealand – distributors of the Italian Castelli diaries, Moleskines and the long-established (1881) Collins diaries – says in the past five years sales have been trending up. He wouldn’t be without his “high-quality diary and fine writing instrument.” Abba Renshaw, publicity manager for Allen and Unwin NZ, who produce the Faber Poetry and Royal Horticultural Society diaries, likewise is committed to a paper diary, which must have “an attractive cover, a week to a page and an elastic to close.” She writes only in pencil.

Helen Harvey, director and co-founder of Live Wires New Zealand, says, ““Everyone said Kindles would be the death of books, but that hasn’t happened. I don’t see the demise of diaries.” 

So, what makes a paper diary endure?

Emotional attachment is key for many people. My relationship with my diary begins when I buy it. I make decisions on mood, space allotted and cover design. The Moleskines are smart and functional but have no personality. My Italian series remind me of travel; the Reading Woman diaries compel me to sometimes step away from work to read a book in the way that (leisured) women have for centuries. 

Ease of access is another reason. You can leave a diary open to refer to at a glance, or easily retrieve information from a previous date. It’s often more convenient to scrawl something down.

 Paper diaries don’t need batteries. 

July 13, 2008: Wedding anniversary!!!

Writing something in your own hand has cognitive benefits. Handwriting builds memories and leads to better recall. Studies have shown people are more likely to remember information they have written by hand, rather than typed into a laptop or phone app. Writing can be a powerful tool to simplify and organise thoughts. 

My handwriting has deteriorated over the years, but it is also an accurate guide to how I felt on any day. A note scrawled in haste reflects a hectic time. Exclamation marks (sometimes highlighted in vivid colour) are a warning a notation must not be overlooked. If my life is spilling out at the edges, the writing is tighter to fit the space allowed. In contrast, during Covid lockdowns, there are leisurely italicised jottings about walks, garden chores and reminders to phone friends. There are doodles in the margins.

Diary entries bring back memories. In the week beginning August 26, 2021, my diary reminds me I went for three six-kilometre walks, had my skin checked for suspicious moles (none found), bought flowers for my sister on the anniversary of her husband’s death, and ordered an 11th wedding anniversary gift for my son and daughter-in-law (a beautiful steel kereru for their garden). I also had lunch with three former journalist friends, researched details for a surrogacy book, and spoke at a Hamilton Book Month function. The events are not remarkable, but if I had not kept a diary, I would not have remembered all this.

Other notations seem humdrum but are not. On November 20, 2020, I am reminded to “pick up Sam and Noah”, which signalled the joyous return of a son and his family to live in Aotearoa after 12 years in the UK. The carefully orchestrated pickup was from a quarantine hotel in Auckland where they’d spent the past two weeks.

Some entries bear witness to earth-shattering events. On September 11, 2001, my corporate black Moleskine diary reminds me to start work on the next year’s business plan, a task rapidly abandoned in the early hours of the following day as terrorists attacked the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

In the week beginning February 5, 2006, one entry says, “Write eulogy for mum.” 

June 17, 2011: Take muffins and champagne to Fieldays team

It is strange to look back on days preceding tragedies, when mundane events seemed noteworthy until a life-altering event occurred. But there is also comfort in seeing how life goes on throughout the days and months that follow. And there is comfort in the annual ritual of transferring anniversaries of births, deaths and marriages from one year’s diary to the next ensuring, in my lifetime at least, they will never be forgotten. 

It is also absorbing to track the changes in my own life. Before my hair went grey, two hours was blanked out each month for a cut and colour, manicures were scheduled every fortnight; regular facials, noted only as “clinic” appointments, disappeared some time ago. Sessions at the gym have been replaced by walks.           

On my death, my diaries will no doubt be destroyed. Unlike legendary screen and stage star Vivien Leigh, whose 1953 appointment diary was bought by the Victoria and Albert Museum for $6,784 (NZD), mine have no commercial value. They do not offer wisdom to a future generation on how to live their lives. The entries reflect only what happened on any day.  But, in that way, they are the most truthful record of my life.  

The day before I was due to meet M for a coffee catchup, I came down with a cold. With renewed concerns about another Covid variant, I phoned her and left an apology. That evening, I received another Outlook message. “This event has been cancelled.” In the space below, there was a single ‘x’.

Keep going!