Monday, August 20, 2007

Literary Manuscripts in the Digital Age

In an article in The Chronicle Review, “Hamlet.doc? Literature in a Digital Age,” Matthew Kirschenbaum draws attention to the information that one could, theoretically, discover about electronic records and writing practices if we could preserve digital texts, their associated metadata, and the appropriate software and hardware. Imagine if Shakespeare had had a hard drive, and that what was on it could be rendered …

In his lecture “The Enigma of Shakespeare,” Jorge Luis Borges said that Shakespeare’s contemporaries “did not seem to have had him much in view.” He was not an epic poet, a great “author”; he wrote, for the most part, plays. Not only was his work for the stage, but it belonged to the acting company for which it was written. As de Quincey explained, for Shakespeare “publication was not the printed word. Shakespeare did not write to be read, but to be performed.” Thus Shakespeare retired to his native village, literally leaving his work behind him, Elizabethan equivalent of the hard drive and all. His work had been for the moment, not posterity. “History,” says Borges, “did not exist for him.” In the end, the document that mattered most for him was Will’s will.

Kirshenbaum writes that “challenges in the realm of digital preservation … are best understood as at least as much social as technological.” But there are other challenges, older than literature, such as perspectives on cultural productions and individual recordkeeping practices.

Borges’s reflections on the enigma of Shakespeare also made it into a prose poem, “Everything and Nothing,” which concludes with information from a different sort of record:

History adds that before or after his death he found himself facing God and said: I, who have been so many men in vain, want to be one man, myself alone. From out of a whirlwind the voice of God replied: I am not, either. I dreamed the world the way you dreamed your work, my Shakespeare: one of the forms of my dreams was you, who, like me, are many and no one.

Chronicle article available from: