Beyond Words: 200 Years of Illustrated Diaries

An Oprah Book Pick

In the age before cameras, the skill of illustration—like that of piano playing, good penmanship, and journaling—was frequently the mark of an educated person. Whereas the written word alone can adequately record the details of one’s life, enhancing that with illustration adds yet another texture to the story, resulting in works that both intrigue the mind and delight the eye.

Beyond Words is a collection of excerpts from fifty illustrated diaries spanning two hundred years of adventure and contemplation. From the records of eighteenth-century Spanish explorer Pedro Font to those of a young David Brower first encountering the wilderness, these unfolding stories reveal as much about the times in which they were written as they do the diarists’ particular inner worlds.

Whether filled with chicken-scratch sketches or gilded illuminations, these diaries have become objets d’art that expand our understanding of the uniquely compelling experiences of their creators—from anonymous writers to luminaries like LeConte and Muir, and from Beat poets to twelve-year-old girls. Beyond Words is a fascinating and intimate collection that will inspire you to pull out pen and paper to capture the fleeting images and experiences of your own life.

Published in conjunction with the Bancroft Library.

Learn more about author Susan Snyder and diarist Isaac W. Baker on PBS’ “History Detectives.”


"The book to give to every journal-writing friend."



"Brilliantly selected and arranged, visually as well as intellectually striking, this gathering of diaries of mostly little-known Americans brings us into abrupt, startling, and poignant intimacy with the wonderfully diverse diarists."

—Joyce Carol Oates, author of A Widow's Story


“What visions of other worlds this book contains! Rarely has a single volume transported me so vividly through time and place. In these botanical sketches, these seascapes, these wave-rocked scrawls, one can almost smell the dusty campfires or fish-rank decks where the diaries were written. One feels indebted to the men and women who have shared their lives, and to Susan Snyder for gathering them into these pages.”

—Daniel Mason, author of The Piano Tuner


"Susan Snyder synthesizes historic fact and illustrated diaries, creating armatures that support timeless moments. We enter, experience, and leave with the palpable sense of being in someone else's imagination."

—Site-specific installation artist Ruth Boerefijn


“It is a special treat to be given access to those intimate human experiences contained in personal journals, diaries, and sketchbooks (the latter a favorite of mine)—especially when the sketches, drawings, and paintings are there to freshen up the text.”

—Wayne Thiebaud


“These brave diarists—their poignant, witty, scrupulous drawings, paintings, photos—open their lived days before us, in details to fill all our senses. How close they feel—that pencil work, that cast of light, those faces, gestures—how intimate their voices! You hold in your hands a magnificent historical document and personal treasure; it will take you on an extraordinary odyssey.”

Joan Frank, author of In Envy Country


“What a complex yet delightful treat—not just for the sketches, or the snippets of life observed through prose, but for the ease with which we're shown that no matter how our daily lives have changed, each new generation enters the scene with fresh and open eyes.”

— John King, San Francisco Chronicle Urban Design Critic


“Susan Snyder’s brief introductions are akin to reading a monk’s marginalia in these one-of-a-kind illustrated manuscripts. To be able to view such an artful, deep, and broad cross section of California history and humanity in these most personal pages is a gift offered by no other work of literature that I know of.”

—Robert Pavlik, historian and author of Norman Clyde


“Susan Snyder's Beyond Words is a magnificent document—stunning, charming, and haunting, as visually gorgeous as it is historically rich. To read these diaries is to be given an extraordinary gift: to witness key moments in American history as if for the first time."

—Sara Houghteling, author of Pictures at an Exhibition

About the Author

Susan SnyderAn inveterate diarist and boon companion to Dear Dog Endymion, Susan Snyder worked as a teacher, illustrator, and Japanese language interpreter before becoming head of public service at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has spent twenty years exploring the library’s stacks, attics, and moats.