Hunting for Diaries

This may sound strange, but I love reading the diaries of dead people. My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home, told the story of one of early America’s most prolific diarists.

While reading The Guardian last night, Amelia’s Tait’s article on “diary hunter” Sally MacNamara caught my eye.

Here is a taste:

Sally MacNamara has long told her four children that if there’s a fire in her Seattle home, they should rescue Olga first. Olga isn’t the youngest family member or a beloved pet – in fact, MacNamara has never met Olga in person. The “Olga” that is so precious to the 63-year-old online seller is a 118-year-old diary written by a woman of the same name. Beginning in 1902, the diary chronicles the experiences of a young immigrant who was raised in a strict religious environment in America. “She did not care what she wrote, which I love about her,” MacNamara says. She purchased the diary online in 2005 – it is now one of her most prized possessions.

Over the past 35 years, MacNamara has read more than 8,000 strangers’ diaries. As a child, her mother would take her “dump diving” to salvage objects – when she discovered an old, handwritten piece of paper in the trash one day, she was immediately intrigued. MacNamara’s father killed himself when she was 13 and he left behind a locked trunk of papers that has now been lost. “I didn’t want that to happen to other people, so I started collecting and keeping people’s diaries and letters,” she says. “I fall in love with people I haven’t even seen.”

At first, MacNamara bought diaries in antique shops, but when a friend introduced her to eBay in 1998, she began using the auction site to buy and sell. She has the enviously simple username “diaries”, and 8,062 pieces of feedback on her profile prove her claims about the number of personal papers she’s collected. Yet while MacNamara has more than two decades’ experience trading strangers’ secrets, her hobby has recently become more widespread. On YouTube, videos entitled “I bought a stranger’s diary” are incredibly popular – an October 2019 video racked up 300,000 views, while the video that started the trend in December 2017 has been watched by over 6.4 million people.

Read the rest here.