Friday, December 12, 2008

Technology and History

My apologies for posting late! We had a hell of a storm most of the day—flash flood warnings, four-five inches of rain per hour, 40 mph winds. That’s winter blowing through the islands. It distracted me a bit, but heck, we’ve still got electricity.

Like Rick and Vicki, I've been pondering an aspect of how technology is influencing books and publishing. Not long ago, Charles recommended Agent ZigZag, by Ben MacIntyre. What a terrific read, about a real character (in all senses of the word) named Eddie Chapman who spied for England in World War II. MacIntyre wrote this compelling biography after MI5 released data and correspondence that had been held until it was either politically safe or the real-life people in the book had died. The account, which is witty and entertaining, paints vivid pictures about the personalities in MI5 whose job it was to run agents, the quirky and brilliant code breakers, and the somewhat desperate and often likeable Germans who believed Agent ZigZag, aka Chapman, was working for them. To do this, the author had access to volumes of printed material and photos from 1939-1945.

This got me thinking about records, letters, and photos. I love a good biography, and this one didn’t let me down. Part of the fascination is being able to view pictures of the people involved, pour over their letters, and be able to imagine their emotions, their insecurities, their personalities.

And here’s my thought—what are we going to have fifty years from now? Sure, the government agencies (FBI, MI5, etc) will have records that they’ve archived. But even though Gmail has a huge capacity for archiving, we’ve got messages with single, brief thoughts, quick instructions, and little personality. When Stegner wrote Angle of Repose, he drew on personal letters to create a novel that won a Pulitzer.

Today we have digital photos saved (if we’re lucky) on thumb drives, CD’s, and DVD's. I don't think nearly as many people write letters. My dad used to write me when I was in college, and I still have some of those long letters, which share some poignant and insightful thoughts. I text, email, and phone my college son.

Tell me we’re going to have actual pages of history to pass along that can be stacked into alluring piles, then nurtured into a fascinating biography. Tell me people still love books, or at least stories. It’s okay, you can even tell me I sound like my grandfather.

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