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Robert Shields Finally Stopped Writing


Well, Robert Shields may not have had the most interesting life, but it sure was well documented.

Mr. ROBERT SHIELDS (Diarist): The entire day is accounted for. I don't leave anything out. It started in at midnight, and go through the next midnight. And every five minutes is accounted for.

BURBANK: That's Robert Shields talking with NPR in 1994. He died earlier this month in Dayton, Washington, after keeping what is possibly the world's most voluminous diary: 37 million-plus words.


Now his method was almost scientific. His office was equipped with six IBM typewriters, in case the other five broke. He slept in increments of no more than two hours so that he could rise, write down the content of his dreams. He broke his waking hours up in five-minute chunks, the better for recording precisely what had happened to him.

Mr. SHIELDS: (Reading) 12:20 to 12:25, I stripped to my thermals. I always do that.

Undentified Woman: Oh.

Mr. SHIELDS: (Reading) 12:25 to 12:30, I discharge urine.

Undentified Woman: Oh.

Mr. SHIELDS: (Reading) 12:30 to 12:50, I eat leftover salmon, Alaska red salmon by Bumblebee, about seven ounces, drank 10 ounces of orange juice while I read the Oxford Dictionary of quotations.

STEWART: Of course, he did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Of course, not one to just toil with the written word, there were other materials lying around that Robert Shields decided to use. He even pasted his nose hairs into his diary.

Mr. SHIELDS: For DNA purposes, it might, in the years to come, they might be able to figure out my genetics from having a physical artifact.

DAVID ISAY: What is this in your diary?

Mr. SHIELDS: Oh, whenever we purchase anything like meat particularly, I peel the stickers off and put it in the diary, because then there's a record of how much we bought and what the price of it was.

(Reading) 8:35 to 40, I peel meat labels from a quarter to mount in the dairy. Bacon is up 20 cents a pound.

BURBANK: Robert Shields worked as a minister and a high school English teacher before he began keeping the diary in 1972. He had apparently been a kind of spotty journal keeper until that time. But in 1972, something just clicked into place. This is him talking to producer David Isay.

Mr. SHIELDS: I just kept going and then I thought, well, I don't want to stop now; and I kept going and I don't want to stop now and I just kept to that.

DAVID ISAY: Why are you doing this?

Mr. SHIELDS: It's an obsession.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHIELDS: That's all I can say. It's an obsession.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Robert Shields was 89 years young. You know what the kind of modern-day diary is, Alison? I think it's the blog.

STEWART: I would agree with that.

BURBANK: And I have started about eight or nine blogs. This is why I never could keep a good diary either so.

STEWART: Right. And also, as a friend of mine said, if you write it down, it means somebody is going to read it sometime in life. You should always know that. Ask Bob Graham. He was actually going to run for president. Remember the senator?

BURBANK: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

STEWART: But his diary was very much lying on the lines of Robert Shields.

BURBANK: I'm thankful that people actually do. Whenever you watch some of those Ken Burns, you know, movies, you're like…


BURBANK: …these people were really with it: Dearest diary, today, we took on the south or whatever. If you read my diary…

STEWART: Would it be boring ass?

BURBANK: It would be Robert Shields-esque. Oh, yeah, boring ass. What a segue?

STEWART: I was trying. There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Boring ass - that title has been taken by auteur Kevin Smith. You know him. He wrote "Clerks" and "Mallrats."

Well, he has a new book out called "My Boring Ass Life," his diary. We talked to Kevin Smith about the minutia of his day as well the new projects he's working on. That interview is coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

BURBANK: Wall-to-wall diary coverage.

(Soundbite of laughter) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.