Robert Shields (diarist)

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Robert William Shields
Born(1918-05-17)May 17, 1918
DiedOctober 15, 2007(2007-10-15) (aged 89)
Occupation(s)Minister, high school teacher
Known for37.5-million-word diary
SpouseGrace Augusta Hotson

Robert William Shields (May 17, 1918 – October 15, 2007) was an American minister and high school English teacher best known for writing a diary of 37.5 million words, which chronicled every five minutes of his life from 1972 until a stroke disabled him in 1997.[1][2] Shields's diary, which filled 91 boxes, was longer than those kept by the journalist Edward Robb Ellis (21 million words) and the poet Arthur Crew Inman (17 million words), and 30 times longer than that of Samuel Pepys (1.25 million words).[3]


Believing that discontinuing his diary would be like "turning off my life",[1] he spent four hours a day in the office, on his back porch, in his underwear, recording his body temperature, blood pressure, medications, describing his urination and bowel movements, and slept for only two hours at a time so he could describe his dreams. The New York Times summarized the journal as being about anything "from changing light bulbs to pondering God to visiting the bathroom".[3] He also left behind samples of his nose hair for future study.[3] After his stroke in 1997, Shields tried to continue the diary by having his wife write what he told her to write, but she lacked the compulsion and energy to do so and stopped shortly afterward.[3]

Shields's self-described "uninhibited", "spontaneous" work was astonishing in its mundaneness, and now fills 91 cartons[4] in the collections of Washington State University, to whom he donated the work in 1999.[5] In a May 2000 interview he said "I've written 1200 poems and at least five of 'em are good."[2] He also claimed to have written the story base for Elvis Presley's film Love Me Tender based on the Reno Gang of Seymour, Indiana, where Shields was born. Copies of the manuscript are at the Kansas State Historical Society's E. P. Lamborn collection. Shields based his manuscript on John Reno's 1879 autobiography, although there is some uncertainty over the authorship of the Reno autobiography, with Shields himself having acted as editor for the only known published copy.[6]

The journal for which he became known was not the first he had tried to keep; he had tried to write one at age 17 to chronicle a romantic relationship, but abandoned it after losing interest in the project.[3]


Under the terms of the donation of his diary to Washington State University, the diary may not be read or subjected to an exact word count for 50 years from his death.[7] However, many excerpts have appeared, including the following:[4][8]

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."
April 30, 1994
11:00-11:30: "I picked over parts of Newsweek and Time and Harvard magazine and reread them while I ate about a dozen leftover fish sticks. (Cold.)"
August 21, 1994
2:25-2:35: "I checked on whether our county tax payment had been received. It had."
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."

Personal life[edit]

Shields was married to Grace Augusta Hotson, with whom he had three daughters: Klara, Cornelia, and Heidi. He died from a heart attack at his home in Dayton, Washington, on October 15, 2007, just over 10 years after the stroke that ended his work on his diary. He was 89 years old.[3]


  1. ^ a b Isay, David (1994-01-27). "Robert Shields, World's Longest Diary". NPR. Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 2007-11-26.
  2. ^ a b Feldman, Michael (2000-05-06). "Michael Interviewed... Robert Shields Diarist and former Reverend". Archived from the original on 12 February 2012. Retrieved 2007-12-01.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Martin, Douglas (October 29, 2007). "Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89". The New York Times. Retrieved May 7, 2021.(archive)
  4. ^ a b Morton, Ella (2016-02-05). "The Minister Who Updated His Status in a Diary, Every 5 Minutes for 25 Years". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved 2020-04-19.
  5. ^ Martin, Douglas (2007-10-29). "Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-01-04.
  6. ^ Dickinson, Rachel (2017). The Notorious Reno Gang. The Lyons Press. p. 219. ISBN 978-1493026395. Retrieved 9 September 2022.
  7. ^ Martin, Douglas (2007-10-30). "Robert W. Shields, 89, a preacher who kept a 37.5 million-word diary". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-11-26.
  8. ^ Samways, Ana (2007-11-20). "Sideswipe". New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 2007-11-26.

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