Scott Esposito links to an interesting collection of snippets about the use of e-mails in writing biographies. While some writers seem to think their e-mails might be of use to future biographers, others are more skeptical. First of all, there is the technological aspect, which I’ve discussed before. How many writers have managed to save all their e-mails, let alone in a format that anyone can read?
As I noted back then, I’ve lost everything from before 1998, but it turns out I’ve also lost more than that. At a critical period in 2000, when I left my business to start writing, the e-mails are also gone. Not surprising: in the hectic transition from working in an office environment to working at home, who worries about saving every last message? But supposing a future biographer of the posthumously famous author Dave Munger wanted to know what motivated him to start writing full-time, she wouldn’t find it in his e-mails — even supposing no additional e-mails were lost in the 75 years between now and his tragic geriatric parasurfing death in 2080.
Now, maybe a service like GMail will ensure that more e-mails do get saved, since it allows easily keep all your messages online in perpetuity. But if I were to switch now to GMail, it would be even more likely for me to lose all my old messages. As the years progressed, and I continued to switch from computer to computer, at some point I just might not want to mess with translating my e-mails to the latest (but still no longer used) format. And what happens 50 years from now when Google is bought out by HoloLaserCorp for 75 trillion dollars? Will HoloLaser have the same dedication to archiving that Google has become famous for? Perhaps HoloLaser will ditch Google’s e-mail system in order to refocus its efforts on the technology to download the entire contents of the human brain into flying cars.
Scott’s commenter Miraida Morales points out that blogging may also be a biographer’s tool. And so it might. But blogging, unlike letter-writing, represents a writer’s public side. You won’t find anything on the old Word Munger site about why I left my business either.
This is not to say that the technology e-mail has replaced — writing paper letters — is especially sturdy. I don’t have any copies of the letters I wrote back in college in the 1980s, even though I still have many of the letters others wrote me. Suppose my best friend from high school is one day remembered as a great biologist. Will anyone think to search through obscure writer Dave Munger’s correspondence files to find out what such a Great Mind had been thinking all those years before?