I had meant for this diary to reveal the real Richard Selzer, a simple, ordinary man with the habit of writing down whatever he thought or did…But almost immediately, I came face to face with the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of presenting myself to the public in a candid, orderly way without dressing up for the occasion.
Richard Selzer, a former surgeon and Yale School of Medicine Professor, is a man for whom everyday is an occasion. Now a writer with a reputation for insightful narratives and precise styling, Selzer has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship, and evokes Chekhov, another man with not one, but two successful careers, as “one of my literary-medical idols.” In his Diary, Selzer recounts the day-to-day events of his life from 1997 onwards, his powers of observation and sophisticated prose making an event out of every day spent amidst the “loonies” at his library table, every writing workshop, and every trip to the gym alike.
Diary continues the narrative of Selzer’s life where his 1992 memoir Down from Troy left off, showing us Selzer at home in New Haven, where the Yale campus and its environs provide sources of both irritation (“noisily dressed students”) and pleasure (“a slice (to go) at Broadway Pizza”). The “egotism” he acknowledges as the necessary precondition for diary-keeping is constantly mixed with wry self-awareness. “You look so handsome!” a stranger tells him upon stopping to ask for directions, and Selzer writes, “Sitting on the shuttle in my blue blazer, white woolen scarf, peak cap, and corduroy pants, I had to agree with her.”
Between his blue blazer, his reflections on medicine and writing, and his inevitable afternoon vodka, Selzer’s Diary manages to capture the essential value of the everyday, and on one occasion, having climbed the stairs down to the “charmless subterranean stone box” that is the library bathroom and noticed a piece of ivy growing through the window’s wire mesh, he makes this point explicit, writing, “With five million books upstairs, it is in the Men’s Room of Sterling Memorial Library where Beauty and Truth are to be found.”