Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In praise of paper, in hope for hypertext

I've just finished reading Matthew Sharpe's dark, hilarious novel Jamestown, in which one of the multiple narrators wonders at himself in the act of recording his thoughts on "humankind's flimsies and least likely invention, paper."

My own feelings about paper are untinged by irony, but hypertext has complicated my relationship with it.

Last month, I spent an afternoon sorting through some boxes I'd left unopened in the basement for over a decade, and discovered a folder containing yellowed typescripts of poems I'd assumed lost after a hasty division of personal effects when my first marriage suddenly ended. My only other copies existed as WordPerfect 5.1 files on a 5.5" floppy -- irretrievable, corrupted documents on antiquated technology.

Our electronic files are fragile, in danger of obsolescence. Paper lasts. Even when the individual page disintegrates with age, the technology remains constant, unchanged for thousands of years. All hail to paper.

A few weeks ago at Salon, Laura Miller reviewed David Damrosch's The Buried Book, which is an account of how the Epic of Gilgamesh lay "buried in the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace" for almost 3000 years before being unearthed by archeologists in the 19th century. The story, of course, was recorded in cuneiform and baked onto clay tablets -- an even hardier medium than paper.

I have no idea what expectations the Gilgamesh scribe might have entertained about the future, the longevity, of his efforts. It's clear, though, that papyrus and then paper enticed writers to visions of immortality. The paper text offers the advantage of being easily reproduced, whether by scribe or (later) by press. This possibility of such permanent, portable, reproducible records led the Roman poet Horace to predict (rightly!) that his poems would outlast bronze monuments ("Exegi monumentum aere perennius"), a sentiment echoed by Shakespeare ("Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme") and other writers through the ages.

I continue to work in the medium of the printed page, almost every day, pursuing every writer's dream of a finished, published piece that will live beyond my allotted years. This morning I taught a Business Communication class in a computer lab where two editors from Columbus State's student literary magazine, Spring Street, were compiling manuscripts for this year's edition. Watching them work, I felt the old romantic thrill of bringing the work into print, birthing it into paper.

Hypertext, the electronic document, is impermanent. We bloggers and web writers commit our thoughts to binary code, electronic files, servers, and pixels on monitors -- all technologies that may be as useless in the next decade as my old 5.5" floppy is now. What we write today may be (will likely be) unavailable to a future audience in any form.

But its singular appeal is its novelty. Unlike paper, hypertext isn't freighted with millennia of cultural history, social associations or artistic expectations. It's a radically new medium, with potential that's we've just begun to realize.

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