27 October 2011

Burning Down the House

XANTHIPPE: “Gee, honey, you look depressed. What’s the matter?”

SOCRATES: “Aw, I burned down the house again today.”

XANTHIPPE: “Oh, no! That’s the third time in a year! How much of our stuff was inside?”

SOCRATES: “Everything — all our papers, the novel I’ve been writing, all our records, our pictures and books — everything.”

XANTHIPPE: “You kept a backup, though. [Pause] Didn’t you?”

SOCRATES: “I kept meaning to do it.…”

XANTHIPPE: “Well, darling, you’re just going to have to pack up all the ashes and debris and take them down to that guy with a sifter. Maybe he can retrieve a few things.”

SOCRATES: “He’s all the way over in Corinth — and last time, I had to wait three days before he could even see me!”

XANTHIPPE: “You should have thought of that before you burned down the house, wise guy.”
Homes did burn in days of yore, of course, and so did libraries, sometimes by accident (Alexandria), sometimes not (consider Umberto Eco’s thoroughly credible scene in The Name of the Rose). Yet on the whole, “data storage” today strikes me as a far more fragile business than many of us are willing to acknowledge — perhaps less reliable now than at any point in history.

I would think this, of course, since I dropped my cell phone in the toilet last night, and now a host of phone numbers, text messages, and other data are (at least temporarily) lost to me. Within the past year, I’ve also witnessed the untimely demises of two laptops — one of which had crashed and died once already within the preceding year and was operating on a brand-new hard drive.

These experiences may explain my shock the other day, when Elise was looking at my stuff. Books, records (CDs, LPs, DVDs, and some VHS), documents in several file cabinets: all of it, she observed, the sorts of material that now can be stored conveniently on tiny chips or in cyberspace. Had I thought about joining the 21st century, she wanted to know, and had I considered how much more room I’d have if I simply got rid of all this stuff?*

I could hardly believe she’d say such a thing. Why not just tell me to throw it all out the window? Really, for all her good intentions, I sometimes think that Elise just doesn’t understand the importance of my stuff: to me, it’s not decoration, whereas she’s the person who once rearranged all the books (my books) in the living room by color and size.

Some of my stuff is my vocation — I’m a writer, after all. Some of my stuff is my passion, including multiple copies of recordings of the same opera. And if I don’t trade in all my stuff for the ease and convenience of virtual storage, there’s at least one good reason: the sort of thing you see in the photos below is the sort of thing that very, very seldom happens to a paperback book.

*NOTE: The foreman of the moving crew agreed with Elise, it must be said, but on the other hand, he’d lifted and carried it all.


Anonymous said...

You know, despite our differences, this is a piece I could have written myself. I quite agree. In this connection, Jason Epstein has made a number of points in essays in The New York Review of Books concerning the future of traditional, printed books. Epstein stresses how easily -- with the push of a button or the click of a mouse -- a file containing an e-book that is downloaded to handheld devices can be wiped out utterly and forever. Hardly a comforting thought for an author who had spent years toiling away at a book. If you want a book really to exist, to be more than disposable data flitting across a screen, it must, well, exist -- in print form, in thousands or millions of copies. Epstein remarks that if all his books were to vanish, he'd want to vanish with them, "for books are my life." Mine too.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Rick. I am in fact the sort of person who (in 2001) struck a single key and wiped out all his files, including the novel that I was working on. It took me a full year to reconstruct and complete the book, by which point the publishing industry had fallen deep within its existential crisis, and I couldn't sell my work; subsequent pitches, each more commercial than the precedent, turns out to be insufficient to assuage the panic of the editors … and so here I am. Do I blame Steve Jobs? Not exactly. But you'll notice that I didn't join in the chorus of grief when he died.

Anonymous said...

That's too bad about your novel. As for me, I've got locked trunks full of manuscripts in progress. I sleep a little easier knowing that my work could never be set back two years in a flash (well, of course it could, but at least not by something so arbitrary and unpredicatable as a hard drive crash).

I had some fiction of mine accepted, and published, by the editor of a "PDF Download" publication that until recently was a print magazine. Then the editor said he was suspending publication because he finds it so much more satisfying to produce a magazine you can hold in your hands than to add to the endless mountains of internet crap. Frustrating for me, but I do see his point.

There are a lot of impressionable people running around talking about the demise of print books, but I hope and believe they are dead wrong.

-- Rick

William V. Madison said...

Oh, I've got paper, print-out and even handwritten manuscripts, too -- that's what's in all my file cabinets! But try explaining to friends why you need so much physical space for data storage. Oy.

Much as I enjoy my Kindle, I'm holding on to other people's books, too. No, old-fashioned publishing isn't dead, but how nice it would be if more editors and publishers agreed with us.

Yohalem said...

... and then there was the kind friend who genuinely did not know that his laptop was infected with a virus set to destroy all files ending in ".doc," and when I'd worked on it, I of course transferred the floppy (remember floppies? perhaps you were a small child then) to my regular computer and ...

Of course I still have the hard copies of the 24 issues of the magazine I published. But retyping them!

Hemingway said the best thing a writer could do was lose a copy of a completed manuscript and have to recreate it from scratch (having worked out all the problems). But Hemingway recommended a lot of courses of action I wouldn't think to put into practice. The marlin and the rhinos are safe! As for the bulls ....

I keep several travel drives around and every so often copy the recent writings to them. Then (when I think of it, which is when I use it) I transfer them to my laptop. This way lies madness, but not for a few years yet.