“There is time enough for everything in the course of the day if you do but one thing once; but there is not time enough in the year if you will do two things at a time.”Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
A few days ago Harper Collins published an anthology of The Doors frontman Jim Morrison’s writing. The bulk of this near 600 page tome of poetry, lyrics, transcripts and more comes from the 28 (now privately held) notebooks Jim left behind after his death. Imagine if Jim instead saved his work on a computer and no one could access it because they didn’t know the password or the hard drive crashed. Paper can burn but it can’t crash.
Some time ago two universities in Texas, Texas State and Uni of Texas at Austin, acquired the papers of my two favourite novelists Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. McCarthy’s papers amount to 96 boxes and DeLillo’s 157 boxes. I was curious how either man was convinced to part with their work but then I thought if a university asked me if they could collect my work for preservation and research I would probably oblige. Maybe they would take better care of those papers and notebooks than me?
So what kind of trail am I leaving? I backup my work on clouds but how secure are they? I also think perhaps the more my work stays in the disembodied realm of a computer the more, in a sense, the trail becomes lost to me.
Next time I’ll think twice before I feed the paper shredder.
Lila: An Inquiry into Morals is a novel about a writer writing a novel while sailing down the Hudson River with the eponymous Lila in tow. Phaedrus, the main character, coaxes his novel into existence with index cards instead of the traditional notebook or typewriter. As it turns out there’s a method to the madness.
“The reason Phaedrus used slips rather than full-sized sheets of paper is that a card-catalog tray full of slips provides a more random access. When information is organized in small chunks that can be accessed and sequenced at random it becomes much more valuable than when you have to take it in serial form. It’s better, for example to run a post office where the patrons have numbered boxes and can come in to access these boxes any time they please. It’s worse to have them all come in at a certain time, stand in a queue and get their mail from Joe, who has to sort through everything alphabetically each time and who has rheumatism, is going to retire in a few years, and who doesn’t care whether they like waiting or not. When any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is dead.
Some of the slips were actually about this topic: random access and Quality. The two are closely related. Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it.”Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals
When I rummage through the cabinet drawers and archive boxes in my bedroom on a whim I’m often surprised by things I’ve forgotten I had. On my computer, where my files are stored in folders upon folders and I can’t see what they are until I click on them, it’s more difficult to be surprised. Random access and serendipity go hand in hand.
- The Colours of Spring, the first issue of my newsletter Hearts & Minds is out now. If you like what you see, feel free to subscribe for more.
- Austin Kleon also writes about the art of finding what you didn’t know you were looking for.