Sunday, August 5, 2007

Reading about Records

In the August 6 issue of the New Yorker, there is a review essay on two books about biographies (“The Lives of Others”). The author, Louis Menand, observes that “diaries and letters are the materials with which biographies are built, generally in the belief that the “real” person is the private person, and the public person is mostly a performance” (65). The problem with this assumption, Menand notes, is that performance is not limited to the public sphere.

Menand also considers the nature of the record of the “laughable mess that is our own life”: “only a sliver of what we do and think and feel gets recorded, and the record that does exist is incomplete, or distorted, or captures states of mind that are transient.” What can such a fragmentary record reveal? What Menand claims about biographies may be applied to a record: it is “a tool for imagining another person, to be used along with other tools” (66).

An earlier article in this issue of the New Yorker, “Damn Spam,” reminds us of some of the problems with recordkeeping today. Thanks to the internet, “protocols and rules that have governed written communication for hundreds of years no longer apply” (39). The creation, integrity, and persistence of records have become much more problematic in a world in which most of the 171 billion email messages sent each day are only trying to sell something.