Online Edition: Winter 2000/2001

The Slate Diaries

The Slate Diaries

edited by Jodi Kantor, Cyrus Krohn, and Judith Shulevitz
introduction by Michael Kinsley

Public Affairs Press ($14)

by Melissa Maerz

In the aftermath of Monica Lewinsky, The Real World , Survivor, and the Elian Gonzales trial, we remain a nation of post-realist voyeurs longing to transform life into art while often settling for simply turning art into life. Every time the paparazzi follows Bill Clinton as he goes jogging or Big Brother captures a cast member brushing her teeth, our Warholian fascination with the most mundane details of existence is exposed. Perhaps this is why The Slate Diaries, a collection of day-to-day journals from famous and not-so-famous writers, is such an illuminating book: it manages to reach the satori threshold where the most commonplace and the most extraordinary experiences converge.

Michael Kinsley, the editor of the on-line magazine Slate from which these daily musings were selected, has collected a smattering of sentiments from every walk of life: politicians, UPS drivers, rock stars, transsexual economists. With only a "Send" button between auteur and audience, the delightfully raw results possess the immediacy of unedited email correspondence. The best moments in these diaries are spontaneous selections from relatively unfamiliar sources. A writer for The Simpsons laments that his dog doesn't wag his tail when he greets him. A Microsoft employee finds that blood dripping off a butcher's steps smells clean. A school nurse band-aids a mosquito bite, exulting in the fact that she will never be a child again. By contrast, those authors from whom one expects irreverent brilliance seem panicked at the prospect of improvisation. Mark Doty's dense poem-journal and Dave Eggers's overly structured list of witticisms sag in blobby bombast, failing to capture the stream-of-consciousness zing essential to any page-a-day formula. Through analysis of his own early journals, David Sedaris best illustrates the trap that separates the anthology's precalculating Anias Nins from the truly pensive Anne Franks: "I'd like to know what I ate when I was 19 years old. How much did it cost for a pound of chicken… My earliest diaries tell me none of these things. They tell me not who I was, but who I wanted to be." Still, true to the confessional forum that makes journals so delicious, Sedaris is also unashamed to admit, "That person wore a beret and longed to ride a tandem bicycle with Laura Nyro."

Most of us can identify with the urge to be the protagonist in a unicorned My Diary or a leather-bound journal, and since good writers are also careful readers, that embarrassed ecstasy of sneaking a peak at someone else's scribbled melodrama never quite wanes. The most interesting texts bridge the gap between self-invested daydreams and incurable curiosity about others' lives, allowing readers to envision a little bit of themselves within other personas in the book. The Slate Diaries serves as an I'll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours exchange between readers and writers, each of whom relies upon the other to identify with his or her artistic existence through the accidental poetry of the everyday.

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Winter 2000 Table of Contents