There are great personal journals and diaries that we have access to, thanks to nosey researchers and insatiably curious readers, who make their publication worthwhile. Journals are the “Bonus Features” of the literary world. Rarely the main event, they’re a behind-the-scenes look at the great writers, artists, philosophers, etc. – clarifications, doubts, speculations, undeveloped thoughts, personal ephemera of all kinds.
But the best diaries don’t necessarily come from the most celebrated minds.
On June 12, 1942, Otto Frank gave his daughter Anne a journal for her 13th birthday.
This red, white and green tartan-patterned diary, with a little clasp, would become worth more than 50 journals of higher academic pedigree put together. Was Anne some great intellect or artist whose behind-the-scenes workings we really need to understand? Did she make decisions that changed the course of history? No – just the opposite. Anne Frank was a vulnerable, voiceless person in the most harrowing situation imaginable. At the most energetically charged, flowering moment of her young life, she is placed in a silent box of four walls and tinted windows, outside of which was death. And this is no blissfully unaware childhood: she’s old enough to understand what’s waiting around the corner. Into those pages she writes her life, all of it: joy, loneliness, fear, hope, ideas, anger, love, annoyance – everything.
The journal doesn’t just give insight into a particular author’s particular thoughts on a particular subject. It’s so much bigger than that. Questions: Who am I? Who could I become? Will I ever get to…? What is next? Am I alone? And of course she doesn’t have answers to the questions she raises; what genius artist or thinker has ever definitively answered any of those questions? She writes out in longhand the human condition that art tries to express and philosophy tries to understand. There it is, the real thing, naturally, eloquently expressed – a compressed human life, though cut short, somehow – impossibly – very full.
In Anne Frank we can see the history and state of humanity: doomed, but making plans; prisoners, but dreaming; with narrowing hope, but still believing; with shortening patience, but still struggling to make space for each other. Anne is aware of the darkness and afraid of it, but not overcome by it.
The mighty Third Reich couldn’t destroy this one little girl. The Nazi bent iron cross cracks and shatters on this one tiny diamond. For all the death they caused, including hers, they are gone – and here she is, breaking our hearts with joy and sorrow in a more profound way than the Hollywood starlets she admired.
3 years later, Otto would get his own daughter’s journal back. Imagine that moment. Eventually, he would make the tough decision to share it’s incredible intimacy with us. When we read Anne Frank’s diary, we see that our own vulnerabilities are the same as everyone else’s. We see that we can continue when it shouldn’t be possible. The diary is a treasure that can keep us alive and help us love others – which are the highest purposes of any book.
She wonders in those pages if she will ever get to be a writer. You totally did, Anne – and a famous one, too.