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Photograph by Stephen Laufer

Your Life Could Be on His Shelf: Ray Zager has one of the largest diary collections in the world.

The Art of Book Keeping

Local collector's obsession has taken him around the world in search of worthy diaries

By Sarah Phelan

CORRALITOS RESIDENT Ray Zager's passion for diaries has taken him to England, where he saw Samuel Pepys' encrypted diaries in Cambridge and went to Virginia Woolf's home, where he ate an apple from a tree in her garden. In Scotland, he visited the grave of child diarist Majory Fleming. In Amsterdam, he trekked to Anne Frank's attic.

"The most fascinating aspect of reading other people's diaries is what it reveals about their minds, by what they chose to record," says Zager, who uses his collection to teach, lecture, and write books and articles.

"The power in having all these books is to read the mind and hearts of authors; to be able to quote from Pepys, Boswell, Emerson. But rarely do I lend them, because of poor experiences."

Though the earliest known diaries were religious, Zager does not collect such works, his search being for "the literary diary, of Mr. Pepys and Mr. Emerson."

"I'm not interested in religious or scientific journals. There's no human element in them," he says. "Whereas to read Thoreau is to experience a strong, wonderful, superlative mind dealing with nature. I'm interested in people's thoughts about nature philosophy, psychology, psychiatry or everyday lives."

Zager began his 1,200-volume collection with children's diaries, of which he now has 60. He also collects the diaries or almanacs of explorers such as Sir Francis Drake and Captain Scott.

"Explorer's diaries are similar to travel diaries, inasmuch when you go somewhere for the first time, it's exciting, and you don't want to lose what you've seen and heard. But the traveler's diary is not sincere. All you are recording is the newness, nothing's really in depth."

"Some diaries are amusing, but most aren't, maybe because we tend to write about what's bothering us," says Zager, who had breast cancer in 1984. "I'm sure if I read what I wrote about then, it would be sad. But diaries are a great way to exorcise feelings, especially anger, which if put down on paper may stay there and outside of you."

Zager's library includes works from John Quincy Adams to Dorothy Wordsworth, with such historical and literary figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anne Frank, Virginia Woolf, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Anaïs Nin in between. It also includes nature and dream journals, illustrations and childrens' diaries. Log onto www.odresher.addr.com/dl-zager/zager-fs.htm for more information.

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From the June 12-19, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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