Sunday, May 20, 2012

modern times

But, more than the data-compressed brevity and just-the-facts utilitarianism forced on us by our times, it's the etherealization of written communication, and its subsequent ephemeralization, that ensure the demise of correspondence as a social art form. All that was ink on paper has melted into air, and who archives air? For all we know, emails or — less likely — texts worthy of the Golden Age of Letter Writing may be whizzing through the Wi-Fi all around us, but the Elizabeth Bishops and Robert Lowells of the Digital Age — or the Eudora Weltys and William Maxwells, or Walter Benjamins and Theodor Adornos, or Hannah Arendts and Mary McCarthys, or whomever you prefer — are probably hitting the DELETE key after reading, as most of us reflexively do.

That's what many of them were doing before the advent of social media, When Email Ruled the Earth. According to a 2005 New York Times article by Rachel Donadio, writers such as Margaret Atwood, T.C. Boyle, Rick Moody, and Annie Proulx saved their emails only desultorily. Zadie Smith said she kept "amazing e-mails from writers whose hem I fear to kiss" but for whatever odd reason imagined they would one day "go the way of everything else I write on the computer — oblivion," presumably because that's what our prosthetic memories do: inscribe our thoughts on thin air.

Mark Dery on Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, at the LA Review of Books.

Er, wow. Hitting the DELETE key after reading?  As most of us reflexively do?  I delete offers of penis enhancement and other spam.  Apart from that, I never delete ANYTHING. Why would I? It's not as though my hard drive is short of space. I have have folders and subfolders in my email program (currently Thunderbird); a few people have folders all to themselves (correspondence with David is in the thousands), others are filed in subfolders of Headhunting, Degrees of Separation, Agents, Publishers, Press, DeWitt (members of my family), R, Samurai and so on.   An e-mail comes with the following cheering remark:

 Your comments on your blog did remind me rather of Cicero's Fifth Verrine on the power of the phrase "civis Romanus sum": "apud barbaros, apud homines in extremis atque ultimis gentibus positos, nobile et inlustre apud omnis nomen civitatis tuae profuisset". Go out into the wilds of the barbarian poker players, and one still receives more respect and recognition than you did from Bill Clegg et al. 

How could I possibly delete it?  (Whenever I think of Bill, of course, the regular association of ideas will now bring to mind the phrase 'apud homines in extremis atque ultimis gentibus positos.'  Apud barbaros, Bill, apud barbaros.)

For all we know Mithridates may be one of the great writers of the 21st century - how shocking if I were to destroy our early correspondence.  He may, of course, have saved it himself, but how much better if everything is kept in two places.  Somewhat startled, to tell the truth, to find that my fellow writers are taking such a cavalier approach to the preservation of documentary evidence.


lestin said...

I similarly save emails--but there's a hitch for future historians: I've done nothing to see the good ones made public after I'm gone.

Letters sit in a box for historians or descendants to find and share after a proper amount of time has passed, provided no one burns them. Emails stay locked under our passwords after we're gone.

Perhaps email services should provide an option: "Make all emails in this account public in the year


Phil said...

This is why I CC myself on all my dick pics. I'm doing it for posterity, people.

Mithridates said...

Oh the pressure!