Tuesday, March 31, 2015

From One Writer to Another

After we'd left all of our bags and coats in a locked room, they led us into a windowless classroom inside the library where a large screen featured the catalogue search page.  I was there with a group of students for a session on archival research; I thought that perhaps we'd see a presentation about how to find things.

Instead, they brought out an original Nuremberg Chronicle.  Invited us to touch the cloth pages, see where the bookworms had eaten through, touch the brass bosses that kept the book off the table and away from damp surfaces.  Without gloves on.

I'd been to university archives before, to look through old papers (for the history section of my dissertation), but never had I touched something this old with my bare hands.  It was astonishing to imagine the history, not just of the work itself, but of the people who had worked on this particular book (which took three years to make), who had held this copy of the book, who had read the book that I now touched.  People for whom the beginning of world history was Creation story, and for whom the end was the Apocalypse.  Something about the act of touch dissolved the boundaries between today and yesterday and hundreds of years ago, as if they'd been false all along.

There were other things.  A letter from Isaac Newton to Samuel Pepys (this in a thin plastic sleeve).  Navajo playing cards from the 19th century.  First full drafts of novels, with corrections and marginalia.

Marveling at correspondences between authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garciz Marquez, I felt a sense of loss, too: what rich exchanges will be irretrievable, now that those conversations are digitized?  Yes, we can save those things (because as we all know, the internet's memory is long, indeed), but who will?

I used to write long letters to friends, sending them by post.  Now, I dash off email, connecting and disconnecting.  I think about the email I've written to my author-friends, knowing that though I can't speak for them, sometimes the things we say to each other are the beginning and endings and interstices of what I write.  The conversations tell a more complete story about writing.  How will the archives trace those conversations, if at all?

What about the multiple drafts of novels, or other documents, whose revisions can now no longer be detected?  How do we tell those writing stories?

Do you still write anything longhand?  What's the oldest document you've touched?
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  1. I loved the National Archives when we went to visit DC when I was in high school, but I've never touched anything that old.

    I loved to write letters when I was younger, and now I do handwrite some of my correspondence, but most of it is electronic. The only thing that doesn't fit is my journal - that's handwritten. And I love that about it. There's history of me from when I was 13 years told through nearly 40. Here and there, mind you - I didn't write continuously. But still. Pretty cool that someday my husband or son can go through those journals and read about the things I thought. :)


  2. Oh!! SO!! COOL!!! I sometimes think I missed my calling and should have been an archivist. :) I have to admit I write very little in longhand these days aside from a message or two in Christmas cards to my aunts and my shopping lists. But I still think kids need to learn it. ;)

    I got to handle a packet of letters that my great-great grandmother & her children wrote back to their family in Ontario after they headed west in the late 1870s. Not only do they tell my family's story, they also describe scenes such as Sitting Bull and his braves dancing in the streets under the stars. I'd read transcripts of the letters since I was a child, but to see the handwriting and touch them was an unforgettable experience. The originals almost got thrown out & spent about 50 years after transcription in the closet of my mother's cousin... thankfully, they are now archivally preserved and housed in a vault at a local museum.

    1. Loribeth, I think you would be fantastic at this! Maybe worth exploring?

  3. Justine, I'm in awe. The oldest books I've seen date back maybe 50-60 years. I would love to see something so old, let alone touch it (shivers from that thought)!

    This topic is one I think about now as there's been a call to revisit old theories and models in Biology. Too often researchers go down one rabbit hole based on a few people's intrepretations of the data. But it you reload the original manuscripts and revisit those ideas, it's not uncommon to unearth new insights that lead to new hypotheses. So I've been spending time with older works.

    I wish I had the patience to hand-write letters. Part of it is my handwriting is horrible (it physically causes me pain to write) and the other part is my mind is faster than my hands. That said, I love reading old journals and letters. It's such a craft to write this way.

  4. Hmmm....I have a family bible that's from the mid-1800s. That would be the oldest, aside from y own diaries, lol.

    I can't remember the last time I wrote something long-hand. Maybe a letter to my nephew? 3 years ago.

    I should remedy that.

  5. I keep a bullet journal, and I often write down my feelings in it, so that's longhand.

    I'm trying to think of the oldest book I've touched. Which is very different from the oldest paper I've seen in terms of things like the Dead Sea scrolls or the Book of Kells. I can't think of the oldest thing I've touched.


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