Diarist Extraordinaire

A friend of mine recently sent me an E-mail about the death of Rev. Robert Shields, who–as far as can be determined–has the record for the longest and most extensive personal diary, at least in American history.  I first read about him in a “News of the Weird” column, and in a one-paragraph article about him, “The Story of His Life,” in Penthouse at some point in the 1990s.  (I know because I clipped out the Penthouse article and Scotch-taped it inside the back cover of the maroon ledger I used as a journal from November 1993-June 1995 in Cincinnati.)

Unfortunately, all the diaries I kept from January 1974 (when I was 10.5) until 1989 (age 25) disappeared when I kept them in a storage locker I didn’t pay for–mainly out of poverty.  (That storage locker company had pretty strict rules: No storage of animals or people, living or dead, is permitted was one of them.)

My first diary was one of those silly little blue books with a lock.  (The key disappeared, but if you have a bobby pin, you have a diary key.)  It was a Christmas 1973 gift, and I christened it a week later as my parents and I were en route from Richmond, Va. to Marietta after seeing my Aunt Jean and her family.  Aunt Jean’s husband, my uncle Roger, was severely ill with the congestive heart failure that would kill him 10 weeks later.  We made the trip to be with them.  I wrote for the first time in pencil in the car headed back to Ohio.  I even put a dateline, “Somewhere in Virginia,” at the top of the page.  (Sounds like a War Department telegram from the Civil War era, doesn’t it?)

The two Richmond trips we made during Uncle Roger’s illness would be the subject matter for my first long work, a 48-page single-spaced (typed) description of the two journeys.  Jack Kerouac would have been proud–I included every gas station stop, restroom break, Mail Pouch barn, and restaurant that crossed our paths between Marietta and Richmond (via U.S. 50 through West Virginia, the truly scenic way to get there.)

A milestone in my diary-writing was that in 1979 I stopped using pencils to write.  When people ask, I usually get Biblical and arrogant and say it’s because I’m like Pontius Pilate (“What I have written, I have written”, John 19:22).  The real reason was much simpler; I began to notice that pencilled entries would rub off on the facing page and would fade.

Here is the Wikipedia article about Shields.  There are some heights I never want to reach.  The lucky souls at Alden Library at Ohio University will ultimately get my diaries when I depart this life, but I doubt I could ever lay this tonnage on them:

Robert Shields (diarist)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Rev Robert Shields (born May 17, 1918 – died October 15, 2007) was a former Minister and high school English teacher from Dayton, Washington, USA, who, after his death, left behind a diary of 37.5 million words chronicling every 5 minutes of his life from 1972 until a stroke disabled him in 1997. Shields’s diary was longer than those kept by the journalist Edward Robb Ellis (21 million words), the poet Arthur Crew Inman (17 million words), and perhaps the most famous diarist of all, Samuel Pepys (1.25 million words).

Believing that discontinuing his diary would be like “turning off my life“,he spent four hours a day in the office on his back porch, in his underwear, recording his body temperature, blood pressure, medications, describing his urination, and slept for only two hours at a time so he could describe his dreams. It is believed that Shields suffered from hypergraphia. He once said “Maybe by looking into someone’s life at that depth, every minute of every day, they will find out something about all people.” He also left behind samples of his nose hair for future study.

Shield’s self-described “uninhibited”, “spontaneous” work was astonishing in its mundaneness, and now fills 94 cartons in the collections of Washington State University, to whom he donated the work in 1999. In a May 2000 interview he said “I’ve written 1200 poems and at least five of ’em are good.” He also claimed to have written the story base for Elvis Presley’s film Love Me Tender.


Under the terms of the donation of his diary to Washington State University, the diary may not be read or subjected to an exact word count for 50 years from his death. However, many excerpts have appeared, including the following:

July 25, 1993 
7 am: I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.
7.05 am: Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.
April 18, 1994 
6:30-6:35: I put in the oven two Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese at 350°.
6:35-6:50: I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary.
6.50-7.30: I ate the Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Cornelia ate the other one. Grace decided she didn’t want one.
7.30-7.35: We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.
August 13, 1995 
8.45 am: I shaved twice with the Gillette Sensor blade [and] shaved my neck behind both ears, and crossways of my cheeks, too. 


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