The news that Harper Lee "found" a manuscript she had apparently misplaced for 55 years came out on the same day as an interesting essay by a music blogger who says that most of his published writing from the past 10 years has disappeared. I read the two pieces of news simultaneously and was struck by their overlay. How does writing disappear these days and how are we expected to preserve it?
In predigital days, a typed or handwritten manuscript was no less precarious or prone to erasure. Stacks of paper can catch fire, get wet or simply disappear. Hemingway once lost a complete novel (he said his wife threw it out accidentally) and never rewrote it. I remember those days, all the painstaking photocopying. I started writing for magazines before the Web, so I have boxes on mouldy boxes of clippings – numbingly dull articles on long-gone restaurants and forgotten Canadian novels – and it has only just occurred to me that they are almost completely devoid of contemporary interest. No one will ever read them. But the urge to catalogue one's production – to have some record of a cultural artifact that others experienced – is hard to override.
The story of the found Harper Lee novel is fishy mostly because of its timing, scant months after the death of the sister who protected and guided the frail author of To Kill a Mockingbird. It seems unlikely that the book was ever genuinely lost. But it still demonstrates the grim tenacity of print. A stack of paper will survive every computer transfer, every hard-drive failure, every website closing.
Which brings us to the story of the music blogger, one Carter Maness. He wrote last week in The Awl (an online magazine) that he has been publishing music criticism in other online journals for five years, a total of some 2,000 pieces, and now he can't find them. He is trying to pitch some new stories to editors and has discovered that almost none of the links to previous work are functioning. Most of the journals and blogs he wrote for have closed and disappeared. He wonders if he has anything to show for his years of work. He admits that he had the chance to regain everything he wrote for one defunct music site, by buying the site itself; he decided not to, because "I'd never really look at it."
"Link rot," the eventual disappearance of online references, is a serious problem for scientific research as well, since so much of it is only published online. When websites disappear for financial reasons, actual knowledge does, too.
I'll leave to technical experts the discussions of how to save and back-up online texts, or the ambitious projects under way to try to archive the disappearing Web, such as the Wayback Machine based in San Francisco. That's all fine: We still never had to worry about that with one box of photocopies or clippings. All you had to do was keep it dry.
I always have to fight my nostalgically biased sense that writing that does not destroy trees is ephemeral (an instinct that is demonstrably false). I still can't stop myself wondering, about any curated collection of journalism, whether any money was exchanged in the process. Increasingly, published writing is unpaid. Of course that doesn't make it any less serious – contrarian or subversive writing especially is unlikely to be subsidized by advertisers. Maness seems to have made money, even a living, from his pop-music reviews, but admits that as the websites have dried up, so has the money. Interestingly, he still refers to himself as a blogger. Blog is a less respectful word than magazine; it suggests that little money is exchanged for the product.
Remember the word zine? It is what we called homemade print magazines. The word disappeared just as the practice of self-publishing came to dominate the world of letters; at the exact moment the phenomenon itself became mainstream. If short-lived, non-paying music websites existed in print, we would have called them zines. That's an even less respectful word.
There is no reason for these judgmental terms. But Maness's sobering story does make one wonder about the value of all the millions of words we churn out on our devices every day. Maybe they are all easily deletable, with no great loss to society at all?
I note in passing that French researchers have recently used something like an X-ray – a photon beam inside a synchrotron – to analyze charred papyrus scrolls from the Roman town of Herculaneum. Even though the bundled paper was burned to a crisp by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the scientists have been able to "see" through a few layers and read a few words. There is no evidence that the document they want to unravel is historically important, but they still seem quite excited about this.