Writing

Robert Shields, Obsessive Diarist

  • July 23, 2012

In an earlier post, I wrote about Herman Melville, who wrote a letter to his friend, wishing that he had a paper mill in his house so that his letter could literally be never ending.  Robert Shields could very well have benefited from such an arrangement, when at the time of his death, he had chronicled the details of his life in five minute intervals from 1972 to 1997.

Robert Shields

“Reverend Robert Shields (May 17, 1918 – October 15, 2007) was a former Minister and high school English teacher who lived in Dayton, Washington, USA, who, after his death, left behind a diary of 37.5 million words chronicling every five minutes of his life from 1972 until a stroke disabled him in 1997.” –Wikipedia

For the vast majority of us, we keep a journal or diary to chronicle our daily activities, thoughts, ideas, and general happenings on a daily, or semi-daily basis.  Robert Shields decided to document in grave detail, every five minute period of his life for a span of approximately 25 years.  What he created was an amazing collection of work which filled 94 cartons, and was nothing more than a timeline of mundane snapshots of 25 years of his life.

Instead of detailing interesting occurrences, Shields wrote about his body temperature, blood pressure, medications, urine, and bowel movements.  He was so detailed as to describe how many sheets of toilet paper he used after each bowel movement.  Among the notes, he would also detail weather observations such as humidity, and temperature readings at various points around his house.

The typewritten account of Robert Shields life, which filled 94 cartons is currently being stored at Washington State University, as was his dying wish.  Unfortunately, it was also his wish that it would not be made available to be read, or to have an exact word count until after 50 years has passed since his death.  So therefore, the diary cannot be accessed in any way until October 15, 2057.

It should be noted, however, that the following excerpts have been released, but the overwhelming majority of his work will have to wait.

July 25, 1993 
7 am: I cleaned out the tub and scraped my feet with my fingernails to remove layers of dead skin.
7.05 am: Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.
April 18, 1994 
6:30-6:35: I put in the oven two Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese at 350°.
6:35-6:50: I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary.
6.50-7.30: I ate the Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese and Cornelia ate the other one. Grace decided she didn’t want one.
7.30-7.35: We changed the light over the back stoop since the bulb had burnt out.
August 13, 1995 
8.45 am: I shaved twice with the Gillette Sensor blade [and] shaved my neck behind both ears, and crossways of my cheeks, too.
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