Friday, October 24, 2008

Biography by Google? A Chronicle of Correspondence...

The following post was written by familiar guest blogger, Patrick Fitzpatrick.

I spent a good deal of time during my summer holidays at my parents' home, the house I grew up in and left more than 20 years ago. I have in the intervening years returned to that house many times. Regrettably, many of those visits were short; at most ten days, at least five. I would always leave thinking I would love more time and knowing that there wasn’t enough time to get done all I’d hoped. This last trip lasted almost two months. This time I got many of those things done.

When I left home much of what was mine up until then was left behind. Only so much will squeeze into a couple of suitcases. Schoolbooks, note books, diary’s, cutting from magazines, newspapers, stuff I’d found, all that general, bric-a-brac, idiosyncratic, to-anyone-else-meaningless ‘stuff’ of our youth didn’t come with me. As the years meandered on and my younger brother and sisters grew up and moved into my old room, my stuff was boxed up and put upstairs into the attic. After all, their stuff needed room downstairs.

Just about every time I went home I wanted to get upstairs to look through those boxes. Time never allowed it. In fact, so many years had passed that I began to figure those boxes were probably discarded and so I began to forget it all, figuring I’d never see any of it again.

This summer with plenty of time on my hands, my mom said to me one day, ‘why don’t you go up in the attic and go through your stuff’. So I did. As I climbed the ladder and began peeking into the dusty boxes I was at first surprised to see it was still there and then suddenly overwhelmed by the memories it evoked. Here it all was: all that general, bric-a-brac, idiosyncratic, to-anyone-else-meaningless ‘stuff’ from my youth.

Over the course of several days, a few hours at a time, I deliberately, carefully leafed through every scrap of paper, souvenir, and concert ticket and school book. At first it was all so unfamiliar, unrecognizable. It had been so long since I’d seen most of it, the reasons I saved so much of it had faded from memory.

The one thing I continued to find more and more of as I open box after box were letters. Lots and lots of letters. Hand written, mostly in pen, in stamped envelopes. They were sent to me from various people, from a variety of addresses - some from overseas even. I opened a few. There were some real classics. Some that recalled events long forgotten. Relationships well lost to memory. There were a whole lot from girlfriends. (There’s a priceless one from a gal I was keen on that begins…”Hi Patrick, what the f*^k did you set fire to the school for…” The story behind that will be reserved for another time!) There were two from my dad. There were several from my mom. Some from my brothers and sisters.

Looking through those letters made me realize that from them an outline of the story of my life up until twenty years ago could be sketched. A chronicle of correspondence. And that thought led me to another: the once commonplace act of sitting down, taking out a piece of paper and pen and writing a letter is gone. With text, instant messaging, email, blogging, social network sites, mobile phones we probably communicate with each other more than ever before in the history of humanity. But twenty years from now, how would we know? It’s all ephemeral. Bits of binary.

Those letters I found are real, tangible. They have in them the unique penmanship of their authors. The color ink and type of paper they chose, the crossed out words concealing reconsidered thoughts. The envelopes themselves with their stamps and cancel-marks all have in them so much about their time and intent. Email has none of that. Text messaging though quick and brief has none of that.

I’ve got about 500GB of storage space around me at home on various hard drives. There’s more than several thousand photographs, hours of digital video and who knows how many emails stored somewhere on them. Most of that stuff has never been seen by anyone but me. Heck, I don’t even look through much of it. But with letters you can. You can pick them up, hold them in your hand and get a true sense of a time and a memory. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to wax poetic about a metal hard drive and there’s nothing romantic about black Times New Roman 12 point type on a stark white digital screen.

Historians and biographers mine the personal letters of their subjects to get a sense of the lives they lived. For them letters are a revealing gold mine. How will future historians research the people they chose to write about? Will it be biography-by-Google? How will my daughter look back and catalogue her life? Just how are artifact, memory and the written word – the actual written word – going to be remembered?


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