In a recent piece in the New Yorker, author T.C. Boyle ruminates on having divested himself of the material detritus of his more than thirty-year literary career after selling his personal papers to the Harry Ransom Center:
Since I began writing stories and novels in the early nineteen-seventies, I have kept every scrawled-over draft, every letter from friends and readers and my fellow writers, every rejection slip and review, as well as all the correspondence with my editors, agents and publishers around the world—and now I no longer have them. No matter that I never looked at any of them, ever, and that they remained thrust deep in their manila folders in the depths of filing cabinets and yellowing boxes imprinted with the logos of appliances long since defunct—they were there and they gave me weight.
But what about his digital files? (Yeah, I know some of you were just waiting for me to ask that.) Email, word processing documents, cached copies of old Web pages (Boyle in fact had a Web site very early on)—the piece makes no mention. In fact, the digital world only creeps in incidentally, as an aside, when he locates himself through mention of “this very old wood-frame house on the California coast where I am now sitting at the keyboard.”
Some writers choose to give over their born-digital materials to archives and collecting institutions, some don’t. There are sensible reasons for either choice. But it’s striking to me how incidental and overlooked the digital world can still so often be, so close at hand—so radically present that it can serve as a marker of authenticity and immediacy, just like the worn boards and joists of a vintage house—yet somehow simultaneously so categorically different that it is invisible and omitted from that wonderfully messy catalog of scraps and belles lettristic bits.
We have a pretty good idea already, I think, of what constitutes the digital equivalent of all that remote and mouldering miscellany, “deep in their manila folders in the depths of filing cabinets and yellowing boxes imprinted with the logos of appliances long since defunct.” So the issue is less technical than emotional, affective, maybe even aesthetic. What is the weight of a digital life? Perhaps we still just lack the kind of vocabulary we have for old houses.