The Joy of Pepys

Twitter is much maligned by those who don’t use it, and I’d be the first to admit that it has several million downsides, but every now and again you come across something truly wonderful which makes it worthwhile putting up with the dross. Here’s an example. Some time ago, a nameless genius came up with the idea of tweeting excerpts from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys.  Those of you on Twitter can follow Samuel Pepys by clicking here:

For those of you not familiar with Twitter, its main characteristic is that messages posted on it (“tweets”) are limited to 140 characters. To outsiders this seems to imply that all tweets are banal and pointless, but this is far from the case. The strict length limit forces a form of creativity that is both rare and wonderful. The stroke of genius in this case was to realize that the Pepys Diaries could be tweeted in chunks of the right size, in a manner that almost suggests they were designed for the purpose!

Pepys was a high-ranking naval administrator and Member of Parliament so he had detailed knowledge of the momentous political events of his period. He’s currently tweeting from May 1660 (near the start of the diaries), giving a vivid insight into the background to the Restoration of the Monarchy. Parliament should be recalled in a few days time, on May 8th…

Here is a selection of recent examples:

But it’s not just the fascinating political context that makes these tweets so interesting. They also give glimpses of everyday life in the 17th Century. Pepys was in poor health for much of his life, for example, and there are frequent references to various physicians and their quack remedies. He also manages to conjure up in just a few words the extraordinary atmosphere and energy of the London of the period, along with some of its excesses (especially drinking and fornication).

Following Pepys’ Twitter feed opens a window into 17th Century England, and what comes through it is both refreshing and illuminating. The reason I find this particularly delightful is something that I’ve blogged about before, so won’t repeat at length. I was a very late developer from an education point of view until I was helped with my reading and arithmetic by a wonderful old lady who lived next door. She encouraged me to read and, after a big struggle, I eventually got the hang of it. After a time I had caught up with the rest of the class in School and eventually managed to read just about every book the School had to offer, including the Diaries of Samuel Pepys which were for some reason on the shelves in Class 2 and which I was allowed to borrow. I don’t think anyone had read them before so nobody, including the teachers, knew how rude they were in places. The Restoration period was generally rather bawdy, and Pepys’ Diaries reflect that.

I had no idea at that time, of course, that less than ten years later I would be studying at Magdalene College, Cambridge, site of the Pepys Library where the orignal diaries are kept as well as the rest of Pepys’ own collection of rare books and music.

9 Responses to “The Joy of Pepys”

  1. Martin Says:

    Of course, if you prefer reading it in blog form, go to for an RSS feed. The blog has been running for a number of years; it got to the end a couple of years ago and has now started again.

    • telescoper Says:

      The period covered by the diaries is 1660-1669, so the twitter stream is very near the start. Here’s to the next 9 years!

  2. telescoper Says:

    Yes, you get a few snippets per day on your phone rather than having to sit down with a big book…

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I seem to recall Peter commenting once that my mobile ‘phone looked like the latest, most up-to-date model.

      That was about 12 years ago. I haven’t changed it since.

    • I’m going to tuck some of my reply to the original post here, as food for thought.
      “Overall, though, I find Twitter to be a good in my life, especially as I’ve gotten better at curating my feed. I get to interact with a few excellent journalists, quite a few historians I read and respect, city planners, lawyers, climatologists – I climate model as a hobby – and other scientists. I’m still following too many people, probably, but most of the time I feel like Twitter makes me smarter. Most of the time.”
      Twitter absolutely has downsides, no question, but I am still regularly surprised at how many interactions with absolutely fascinating people can, and do occur. Just Thursday I had an extended discussion with a senior Carnegie Fellow/former State Department Middle East analyst, as well as a wholly enjoyable exchange – that included trading our writing back and forth – with the senior television critic for the NYT. (I don’t watch much TV, and in the end he was basically advocating the merits of one particular show, based on my interest in Reconstruction history.) My favorite interactions tend to be with historians, people I’ve read and respected, especially because those almost always turn into something like roundtable discussions. Sometimes I marvel at finding myself right in the middle of six or seven of the best Civil War historians in the country, going back and forth for days about some element of congressional Reconstruction or the merits of a complicated figure like Benjamin Butler. I don’t know anywhere else that could happen. I also follow some of the most obscure climatologists and climate modelers in the world, who are constantly pumping out data that would be nearly impossible to amass by other means, if only because one would spend so much time tracking it down, and most of it would still only on Twitter.
      I’ll sum up this way: Twitter is exactly what you want it to be. You curate it. You choose who to follow. You choose what you see. You choose what you learn. And it can be a little clunky getting there, I won’t lie. But it can also be fun and wondrous: finding some new source of information that tickles you, and diving down their rabbit hole (who they follow, for a start) to find even more people with deep knowledge about a subject you may have felt very few people cared about in the way you do. You never have to see anything you don’t want to. (In settings, you can choose to have Twitter make suggestions. Choose not to.) Some people rush to what’s trending. I don’t usually care. (But occasionally, I actually do, and that’s fun, too.) Twitter is crammed full of total idiots. That’s true. But it’s also a place where a whole lot of the best minds on earth congregate to broaden their knowledge, try out ideas, and share what they know best. The good news is that if you’re not a wildly famous musician or movie star, avoiding the idiots is pretty easy.
      I always think it’s a bad idea – an idea contrary to the process of learning and growing – to board oneself up to something new based mostly on impressions that may not be accurate at all. Especially when the cost of testing the thing out for yourself is so low. I don’t know you, but I liked your Don Knuth paraphrase. I like to get to the bottom of things, too. I’ve spent my whole life digging tunnels that now overlap and interconnect. My mom used to say, “It’s not her fault. She was born genetically over-curious.” She also used to say, “Try it. You just might like it.” (Although I’m pretty sure that second one wasn’t an original.) 😉
      You might even start here:

      Best of luck either way,

  3. It’s not as poetic, and I’m not sure of the source material used, but does a similar thing for WW2.

  4. […] couldn’t resist doing a quick post inspired by the fact that I follow the Twitter feed of Samuel Pepys, whereon excerpts from his famous diaries are posted as if live. The year currently […]

  5. I found this really interesting and I am now following @samuelpepys. I feel your ambivalence about Twitter. I practically live on Twitter, with occasional breaks for sanity, clarity, and when it’s necessary for the reclamation of my attention span. Overall, though, I find Twitter to be a good in my life, especially as I’ve gotten better at curating my feed. I get to interact with a few excellent journalists, quite a few historians I read and respect, city planners, lawyers, climatologists – I climate model as a hobby – and other scientists. I’m still following too many people, probably, but most of the time I feel like Twitter makes me smarter. Most of the time.
    Didn’t mean to go into a whole Twitter essay. Nice post. 🙌🏻

  6. […] it can also be outright amazing. So I wrote back, starting by just quoting some of my reply to the original blog post, the part that was about […]

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