The READ: Ephemera, Run1
What’s more, the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there. The letters that got torn up, the drafts that were burned—if you’re lucky, there are hints of these in other documents, so that you can agonize in frustration over what was lost. But for all the diary entries and recipes and Christmas cards that your subject saved, there might have been an equal number that he or she threw away. And perhaps rightly so. Even the most dogged researcher, poring over pages after page of publisher’s correspondence (“Enclosed please find your royalty statement for the period January through June 1951 …”) and similar monotony, will remember why this stuff is called ephemera. In 170 boxes of stuff, is there really nothing that Updike could have parted with? A judicious edit of the archives would make it easier to find those documents with true literary value.
Soon, of course, it is the archive itself that will be ephemeral. Adam Begley, Updike’s biographer, writes that his archive “may be the last great paper trail.” Which of the young writers at work today—the New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” for instance—print out their emails for the sake of posterity? What will the “miscellany” file hold for a writer who keeps all his or her appointments on a PDA? (There is a certain undeniable amusement to going through the ancient datebook of a famous person.) Writers’ archives will no doubt continue to exist, but in far different form: perhaps someday a researcher in a manuscript reading room will be offered not a shelf full of musty cartons but his or her subject’s ancient laptop, complete with virtual sticky notes, Web bookmarks, and probably porn.
But the computer discourages the keeping of archives, at least in their traditional form. If Updike had been working in Word, he might have left no trace of the numerous emendations to the opening airport scene of Rabbit at Rest, which Tanenhaus carefully chronicles. (The pun of “terminal air-conditioning” came in a rewrite, we learn.) That medical information he photocopied could now be taken care of with a glance at Wikipedia. Is this a disaster? For biographers and the editors of variorum editions, perhaps—not to mention all the archivists who currently guard the flame. But the rest of us are unlikely to register a dip in the atmospheric pressure. And it could well lead to a useful conversation about how much all this stuff is actually worth—and how much time, money, and effort ought to be expended in preserving it. In the meantime: Novelists of the world, throw out your Planters Peanut Bar Milky Way candy bar wrappers.