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Robert Shields, World's Longest Diary

DAVID ISAY: For no less than four hours each day, Reverend Robert Shields of Dayton, Washington holes himself up in the small office off the back porch of his family's home, turns on his stereo, and types. He is surrounded by a half-dozen IBM Wheelwriters, in case one of them breaks down from over-use.

ROBERT SHIELDS: I can do this . . .

ISAY: Shields spins around in his swivel chair.

SHIELDS: . . . and get all six typewriters without getting up. (Chuckles.)

ISAY: Robert Shields is 75 years old. He is a short, round man with an impish grin, decked out in his customary writing garb -- navy blue thermal underwear and a white T-shirt. Shields was a minister and high school English teacher in this picturesque Washington town, before devoting himself to his journal.

SHIELDS: My diary is complete.

ISAY: Shields is certainly not exaggerating. Over the past 20 years, he has typed between three and six-thousand words each day, keeping a record of everything that happens to him.

SHIELDS: The entire day is accounted for. I don't leave anything out. I start in at midnight and go through the next midnight, and every five minutes is accounted for:

12:20 to 12:25: I stripped to my thermals. I always do that.

12:25 to 12:30: I discharged urine.

12:30 to 12:50: I ate leftover salmon -- Alaska red salmon by Bumblebee, about seven ounces -- drank ten ounces of orange juice while I read the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.

ISAY: Robert Shields types his diary in two perfect columns down sheets of eleven by fourteen inch paper, which he eventually binds into ledgers and stores in huge cartons, seventy-five of which are stacked to the ceiling just outside of his office.

SHIELDS: It's an uninhibited diary. It's tell all, show all. It's spontaneous. I type it as it comes and I don't correct it and I don't edit it.

ISAY: Do you read it?

SHIELDS: No, because if I read it I wouldn't have time to do anything else.

12:50 to 1:45: I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheelwriter making entries for the diary. I typed diary entries since 3:00 this morning. I failed to mention that the Tri-City Herald weighed in this morning at one pound, eleven and one-half ounces. That was the heaviest paper we have had to my knowledge. It lacked only half an ounce of being one and three-quarters pounds. Think of it . . .

1:45 to 2:10 . . .

ISAY: Reverend Shields does have a background which might help to explain this undertaking. His father, John Arthur Shields was the world's speed typing champion at the turn of the century. He would type the Gettysburg Address, over and over again on a manual typewriter at a rate of 222 words per minute.

Robert Shields says that he kept a diary, on and off, for much of his life. But it was not until 1972 that he began to keep this minute-by-minute record.

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 it now," and I just kept it up.

ISAY: Why are you doing this?

SHIELDS: It's an obsession. That's all I can say. It's an obsession. I don't know.

ISAY: What are you trying to do?

SHIELDS: I don't know. I really can't answer that.

5:45 to 6:15: I read more from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. I ate half a dozen large Archway sugar cookies while I drank two cups of milk . . .

ISAY: In his diary, Robert Shields records everything he eats. He records his blood pressure and pulse at various times during the day, the temperature outside and in, every conversation he has, every piece of junk mail he receives. He sleeps no more than two hours at a time so that he can record his dreams.

Robert Shields has also scotch-taped a variety of his life's keepsakes into this diary. For instance: samples of his nasal hair.

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

ISAY: What is this in your diary?

SHIELDS: Oh, whenever we purchase anything, like meat, particularly, I peel the sticker 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.

8:35 to 40: I peeled meat labels from McCrory's to mount in the diary. Bacon is up 20 cents a pound. T-bones are terribly high. I bought them to feed Dave Isay Sunday evening. I don't . . .

ISAY: It is somewhat disconcerting to see the extent to which this task has taken over the life of Reverend Robert Shields, chaining him to his typewriter on this endless endeavor. Shields, it seems, is so busy documenting the insignificant minutia of his life that he has become oblivious to everything else going on around him.

ISAY: How does your family feel about this?

SHIELDS: I never asked them.

ISAY: What about leaving town?

SHIELDS: I don't leave town. I haven't left town since 1985, to visit my brother in Tennessee. I don't like to be away overnight, because it gets me behind. If I travel to Walla Walla to do shopping, it puts me behind in the diary. I have to take notes all the time, and I get back and it takes me a day to catch up with the notes. So I avoid going out. I avoid being away.

3:05 to 3:30: I read the Tri-City Herald. A sniper killed two and wounded five at El Cajon California for no reason at all . . .

SHIELDS: It's my makeup, it's my nature I suppose.

ISAY: What would it do to you if you just stopped?

SHIELDS: It would be like stopping . . . turning off my life.

ISAY: Reverend Robert W. Shields lives, and writes, in Dayton, Washington. For National Public Radio, I'm David Isay.

SHIELDS: 3:20 to 3:25 in the afternoon: I took the readings given in the margins. Humidity: fifty-one and a half. Porch temperature: fifty-six degrees. Porch floor temperature: fifty-one degrees. The study temperature: seventy-seven degrees. And the door temperature in the study, on the door jamb: seventy-four degrees.

Producer David Isay / Mix engineer: Caryl Wheeler / Funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the New York State Council on the Arts and the Corporation. Photograph by Harvey Wang.

"Robert Shields, World's Longest Diary" premiered January 27, 1994, on Morning Edition. Copyright © 1994 Sound Portraits Productions. All Rights Reserved.


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This piece is available in the following audio formats [6:14 min]:
Real Audio



Holding On, a book with an oral history based on this documentary

A page from Robert Shields's diary

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