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Paeans to my Favorite Books -- IV: Harold Nicolson's Diaries and Letters

Diaries and Letters, Vol. 2: The War Years, 1939-1945 - Nigel Nicolson, Harold Nicolson

One of the more frivolous parts of my library is my collection of British political diaries and letters. When I term it "frivolous," I don't mean in terms of its subject matter (though I'm sure that some will regard it as such for that reason) but in its readability. I began collecting such works when I had aspirations towards academic writing (aspirations that I would still like to fulfill someday), as the personal writings of such figures always are a useful resource. Yet such works don't always make for pleasure reading, even when I have an interest in the subject.


One of the great exception to this is the diaries of Harold Nicolson. Nicolson was a former diplomat and author who in 1930 began keeping a diary of his literary and political activities. Aspiring to a political career, he ran for Parliament and was lucky enough to get in by the skin of his teeth in the general election of 1935. Unbeknownst to him or anyone else, this would give him a front-row seat to some of the momentous events in modern history, namely the events leading up to the Second World War and Britain's struggle for survival during it.


In the 1960s Nicolson's son Nigel edited the diaries for publication, leavening them with a selection of his correspondence from the period. I picked up a copy of the diaries years ago, yet it wasn't until relatively recently that I sat down to read them. What I found was a marvelous personal account of the 1930s and 1940s from a perceptive and well-connected observer of events. The second volume, which covers the war years, is by far the most interesting, as not only did Nicolson witness firsthand Winston Churchill's waging of the war from the dispatch box, but his recollection of events offers a contemporary window into the war as it was lived. Reactions to major events are interwoven with references to personal struggles and anecdotes of the political and literary figures with whom Nicolson spent his time. Yet the greatest value of the diaries is their readability; Nicolson had a sense for the perceptive anecdote, and his personal observations of the people he witnessed gives them a life that is lacking from most biographical accounts. Not only did I find reading them enormously enjoyable, but i find myself returning to them as a great account of how one person experienced some of the most trying times in human history. It is truly an amazing document of a man and his times.