On a recent visit to the New York Public Library’s main branch, I found myself mesmerized by the centennial exhibit of its collections. Prized first editions, antique maps, an anatomical study in which human musculature was stripped down like a banana peel – case after case of treasures. And yet what most captivated me were the personal items, the ephemera and mementoes of private lives.
As you’d expect, these include typescripts and handwritten drafts, such as a page from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, heavily marked up by Ezra Pound. A thin notebook opens to Jorge Luis Borges’s draft of La Lotería en Babilonia – to my surprise, the magical realist had tiny, regimented printing. Even his strikethroughs and revisions were crisp and clear. (He was once the director of the National Library of Argentina, though, so perhaps he anticipated how his papers would be ogled and inspected?)
Then there are the more intimate documents: diaries and letters. Impossible not to get a lump in your throat when gazing at John Keats’s letter to Fanny Brawne, his even, looping script confessing, “My dearest Girl, I wish you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you.”
Roaming the dim rooms, I peered at Jack Kerouac’s traveling journal, surrounded by his eyeglasses, Hohner Goliath harmonica, rolling papers, and a squashed Valium box scrawled with notes, as though the pockets of his coat had been turned out for display. Kids surrounded the huddle of stuffed animals that inspired A. A. Milne, including the actual Pooh Bear, with threadbare patches over his heart. Judging by the wear and tear, though, the tiny Piglet saw the most play, with his arms up like an idol and the inner fabric showing through his worn-away scalp.
All this got me thinking about the ephemera of writers growing up in the digital age. What will researchers and collectors fall back on, when notable authors have only computer files and Twitter feeds to show for themselves? When all the ephemera becomes ephemeral, how will we trace the development of great writers?
Picture it: Instead of manuscripts with handwritten edits, a handful of email attachments getting lost in some CMS. Instead of letters, a fog of text messages that vanish when cell phones get replaced or dropped one too many times. Instead of diaries, blogs on outdated platforms. Instead of printed books with marginalia or intriguing inscriptions, future writers will skim through e-readers leaving nary a trace. Imagine Proust with MS Word instead of his obsessive, unfurling scraps of pasted-in additions.
Even the losses are better in analog. Hemingway’s stolen manuscripts are much more romantic than a crashed hard drive.
So authors, present and future, I ask you to start stockpiling some worthy material. You owe it to posterity. Some possibilities:
1. Stash away a few handwritten or typescript copies of one of your short stories / novels / haiku, complete with some scribbled edits. If you are just too self-conscious, hail one of those barretted or mustachioed art-school interns with a manual typewriter or turn to the pros who just love typing.
2. Print out and keep your first rejection letters (dart holes optional). And your first significant acceptance.
3. Take another look at your social media. Will your Facebook posts go down as gnomic windows to your soul? At the very least, this should reduce your number of pet pictures.
4. Lock away a few handwritten love poems and letters, even and especially if you’re not a poet. Use initials or vague pronouns only, to keep future scholars puzzling over your mysterious inspiration.
5. Hold onto one backpack from college or grad school. Inside, dog-eared physical copies of your three favorite books from those years, plus a few matchbooks or scraps of paper jotted with inside jokes or wee-hours observations. Bonus: a ticket stub to somewhere enviable.
6. A candid photo of yourself that has not been fluffed with Hipstamatic, sepia-washed, sun-sparkled, or other retro-ish digital effects.
7. A few inexplicable trinkets for a dash of eccentric flair. If Charles Dickens could mount the embalmed paw of his favorite cat on an ivory letter opener, you can come up with something better than a tattoo.
Other ideas? Fire away!