Again, We Ask You To Consider Future Generations

September 6th, 2005 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We know, give or take, two people who have obsessively (and we use the word with all due fondness) saved each and every email they have sent and received over the past dozen or so years. This leads to some embarrassment if others take a position contradictory to statements they made under who-knows-what-influence in 1996. One should not be held responsible for email statements more than a year after the fact.

Of course, our lack of consistency is neither here nor there at the moment. What is at stake is nothing less than the history of letters. Many thought the telephone would destroy this fine tradition. As it turns out, technology good, technology bad:

Today, a new challenge awaits literary biographers and cultural historians: e-mail. The problem isn’t that writers and their editors are corresponding less, it’s that they’re corresponding infinitely more — but not always saving their e-mail messages. Publishing houses, magazines and many writers freely admit they have no coherent system for saving e-mail, let alone saving it in a format that would be easily accessible to scholars.

If these minor glitches are overcome — may we suggest plain text for the moment? — then future historians (let’s call them geeks for short) will have a monstrous task ahead of them. Just a quick glance at our outbox shows lengthy back and forth threads about times and restaurants for a Friday night dinner (that issue was ultimately resolved via untraceable phone calls), quick questions about where we bought a certain pair of shoes, some whining and complaining about bureaucracy, and various correspondence that might or might not be relevant to the future (i.e., reminders to the husband about watering the backyard). We’re erring on the side of might not.

Granted, we’re no Dave Eggers, but we suspect most of his mail is equally bland, though we are clearly alone on this point. It is good to know that savvy literary, uh, brokers are considering the future value of correspondence.

The question for an acquiring agency or library is how to prevent “extrapolated diminishment of value,” he [Andrew Wylie] added. “I could certainly see Dave Eggers’s collected e-mail correspondence appearing in 10 volumes in the course of the next 40 years, and I think it would be absolutely riveting,” Wylie said of another client. (He said there were no immediate plans to sell Rushdie’s or Eggers’s e-mail correspondence.)

For you, of course, this presents many challenges. Zadie Smith noted:

“I have a normal Yahoo account that saves e-mails instantly, but not to the hard drive. I’ve e-mailed Yahoo and asked how you can save all your own e-mails onto disk or whatever, but I get no reply.”

While we leave Smith to ponder what “whatever” might be, we’ll remind you that saving isn’t the only challenge. There are hard drive crashes and inexplicable freezing of previously reliable software and power outages and, of course, cats who use the delete key as a launching pad. Of course you’re already doing regular, in-depth backups, but are you carefully combing through your outbox and segregrating messages for posterity from the messages you’d prefer posterity didn’t know about? We suggest that it’s time to work this task into your regular routine.

Remember, you’re doing it for your children’s children’s children. Or for that moment when you want to remind your editor that, yes, she did too say you could get a 15% royalty. Said message will also remind your editor to stop sending emails after the third martini.

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