by Samuel Pepys
Frankly, you have to be pretty obsessed with British history to read very much of Samuel Pepys’s diary. Though his diary was originally published in an abridged form, you can read all nine volumes (nine!) today, if you care to find out more than anyone needs to know about a small, grasping soul and the world in which it skulked.
I like British history, but not so much that I am willing to sift through Pepys gloating for thousands of words about his slowly-growing fortune. As far as I can tell, Pepys had only one redeeming virtue: he was keenly interested in a wide range of things, and was ready to learn to be interested in still something else if he met an aficionado. This quality redeems the diary to some extent, because it affords the reader a very multi-faceted glimpse into seventeenth century London.
But what an excruciating guide for your tour! Pepys manifests selfishness to such a degree that he literally does not overhear his own pettiness—cannot, apparently, even imagine how a great soul might theoretically behave. If you’ve ever watched a spoiled child whine and simper through the toy department just before Christmas, you have a pretty good sense of Pepys’s approach to life.
Needless to say, I subject my students to only one small dose of Pepys’s diary: the excerpt that describes the Great Fire of 1666. This is justifiably one of the most famous excerpts, because it gives the reader a first-person account of one of the most significant disasters in history. But Pepys unknowingly makes this excerpt an object lesson as well, reminding students that one of the great windows into the human soul is the way that we respond in a crisis. Pepys’s small soul responds just as you would expect: selfishly, detached from the suffering of others, regarding his property more than the lives of strangers.
You won’t have to preach much to your students after they read Pepys. None of them will hope that they respond the same way he did at a time of crisis—and that’s the point.
by Jeff Baldwin