Samuel Pepys

an idea whose time I don’t have

This came to me in the shower. Many ideas come to me in the shower but most of them have to do with grocery shopping and social obligations.

If you aren’t familiar with the online versions of Pepys’ Diary or Martha Ballard’s Diary, you should really have a look. Or let’s say, you should have a look if you’re at all interested in history and historical fiction.

English: Author: Guy de la Bedoyere. Letter by...

Each of these diaries takes on the job of annotating an older historical document or set of documents for modern readers who aren’t familiar with the cultural context. In the case of Pepys’ Diary, there’s a large community of people who participate by annotating entries. If somebody happens to know the background of a particularly obtuse usage, or a place where it was used in another way, or anything relevant to understanding the passage, they can submit an annotation.

Reading the annotations are as much fun as reading the diaries.

Okay, yes. I’m a history geek. But mostly I’m interested in the stories that are buried in the diaries and that come out, bit by bit. Martha Ballard’s diary contains some tremendously surprising stories of things that happened in her small Maine village where she was a midwife in the late 18th century. Pepys had a much wider view of the world, and so his stories are different in tone.

I know, I’m taking a long time to get to the point. Here it is: any book that is out of copyright could get this treatment, and the list of out of copyright books is very, very long. If one person got the ball rolling with a well loved novel, and the process took off, it might be the beginning of a whole new way of reading, and certainly a new way to discuss the books we read.

I nominate Pride & Prejudice as an excellent starting point. There are so many people who love this novel, I think it would have a much better chance of succeeding than say, Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s possible that the Pepys’ people might be open to an adaptation of their software, which would make everything so much easier.

So there. I’ve put down the idea. It will be a huge amount of work, lots of fun, very satisfying. Not a penny’s profit to be made.

Who’s game? That’s what I thought.

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