Paper or Binary?

I’ve been thinking about manuscripts lately. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how computers have destroyed them.

I went to the Pierpont Morgan Library over Thanksgiving break several months ago. It’s basically the library and mansion of an old wallstreet baron (for those who don’t know who Pierpont Morgan was), converted into a museum showcasing all the stuff he has. There’s a lot of it: beautiful old hard-bound books of a quality that just doesn’t happen any more, and priceless pieces of art, and orthodox iconography. But more than anything else, it was the original manuscripts that fascinated me.

They had them in glass cases, old manuscripts of books that everyone knows at the time. They cycled what was on display, and so I found myself on the day that I went looking at the yellowing pages of The Picture of Dorian Grey, the original ink-marking made by Oscar Wild himself, on the actual pages. The script was elegant and cursive, obviously written with a fine-nib pen. There were some of the original essays written by Mark Twain, and some of Beethoven’s handwritten scores, the writing of the later fierce and jagged with angry little notes stabbed onto the pages.

There was something powerful about being in the manuscript room, as if there was some sort of physical presence to the paper that was much more powerful than just the mass of the pages on their own. It was like being able to share in genius.

My problem is, of course, that I don’t write on paper. My hand writing isn’t elegant. It isn’t even illegible, because at least with illegible writing you can claim a creative style. Mine is simply unsteady and awkward, like a third grader just learning the shapes of the letters. Not the writing suited to manuscripts. And I can’t even write very well on paper, either: my mind has synced with the feel of a keyboard, and I’ve never managed to reprogram it to work with anything else. When I try to shift to paper, the quality of my writing goes perceptibly down. It’s no fun whatsoever.

I’ve been fully raised on computers, and can’t manage to bring myself to that previous time where people wrote by hand. There aren’t going to be any manuscripts for me. There aren’t going to be manuscripts for hundreds of people in the coming generations. The keyboard has taken over.

Not only that, but even typewriters are outdated. The hard work of millions of people all over the world exits only as streams of binary: ones and zeros. There will be no physical record of the process of writing, only the final product.

Now, I should say: I’m a technical boy. I believe in computers, and in technology in general with a fierce intensity. They do make life better. But there is a cost, and the presence of manuscripts is one of them. I know not all authors are capitulating to this as easily as I am: Neil Gaiman, for instance, writes his manuscripts with quill and ink, by hand. Lots of poets I know go to great lengths to write things out longhand, just because it feels weird to them to write poetry on a computer. But for lots of us authors, especially the fiction writers, manuscripts are things of the past.

Every once in a while, I’ll buy a comp-book, or open my nice journal, and start writing something from the beginning out of admiration for those manuscripts I saw at the Morgan Peirpont Library. Truthfully, I would love to see one with my name on it in someone else’s famed collection one day. But it doesn’t work: not only because I’m lazy, but because I just don’t write well with a pen. I’m disorganized, and lose my comp-books, and things just don’t work.

Mostly, though, I wonder what’s going to replace the comp-book. Perhaps it’s what I’m doing right now—the blog is the journal and manuscript of tomorrow. It fulfills many of the same things form a literary standpoint: shows the process that a work went through before publication. But it’s not the same, there’s no physical product to it. People aren’t going to file into a museum just to see the IBM R50 that David King wrote Artifice.EXE on. And this blog is data: easily copied and distributed.

No, I think that the internet has ended a generation completely. We’ve lost something.

But then again, we’ve gained a world of technology. We’ve gotten word processing, and connectivity, and Wikipedia. We’ve gained things we won’t even know about until after they’re established as part of our lives. Some people don’t think it was worth it, but personally, I have a lot of faith in the new things to come.

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1 Comment

  1. candaceclayton100 said,

    March 25, 2008 at 9:24 pm

    I have often pondered the paper or keyboard approach to writing. Ihave to say that I never thought about it in this magnitude. It is sad in a way. I, too, have thrilled at the sight of a well-preserved manuscript. Histroy has truly lost something with the advent of the computer. As with all advances, you gain something, you lose something.
    Candace


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