April 13, 2009KR Blog

On Memory and Forgetting

Is anyone else terrified by all the recent news about memory? First, Benedict Carey reported in The New York Times on research into an experimental drug that, when injected directly into the brain, blocks the chemical responsible for memory, emotional association, and learning. One dose of this drug ??? frighteningly called ZIP ??? apparently made mice forget their way through mazes and lab rats lose their disgust for a taste that once made them sick. (But did they have to make it so easy for the advertisers? “Bad memories? Just ZIP them away!” Life, it turns out, really is a Charlie Kaufman movie.) According to Carey, the research offers the possibility of new treatments for PTSD, addiction, and eventually Alzheimer’s disease, but also raises ethical questions (“A Conscience Blocker?”) and threatens to demystify the process of how memory weaves the web of self, posing a challenge to writers and artists. Will consciousness ??? the underlying subject of all modern literature — go the way of the soul, proving to be just an effect of shadows that vanishes when the bright light of science is turned on the brain? (That’s what’s known as a rhetorical question. I’m actually fascinated.)

Actually, for me, the truly terrifying news from last week came in a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the problems facing librarians as they begin to receive writers’ personal archives not in paper form but on ancient floppy disks, Zip drives, and in the case of Salman Rushdie’s archive at Emory University, “four laptops, an external hard drive, and a Palm Treo personal digital assistant.” The main story here is about how librarians are learning to handle the challenges presented by these new media, especially as old computer systems fade into obscurity, leaving archivists struggling to retrieve the secrets of some dead writer’s Wang. Which brings us to Rushdie. Here’s what the story points out about those four laptops he handed over to Emory:

Since a laptop logs basically everything its user does, preserving these data environments will allow the scholars of the future unprecedented insight into the minds of literary geniuses. “It’s basically like giving someone the keys to your house,” says Mr. Kirschenbaum.

“You could potentially look at a browser history, see that he visited a particular Web site on a particular day and time,” he says. “And then if you were to go into the draft of one of his manuscripts, you could see that draft was edited at a particular day and hour, and you could establish a connection between something he was looking at on the Web with something that he then wrote.”

Let’s think about that for just a moment: every keystroke, every email, every website Rushdie ever visited, will now be available for future scholars to mine. Did he bank online? Send flirtatious emails? Self-Google? Browse Ebay? Visit MILF Island? (And now that Google search is recorded on my laptop“) It’s all there, folks. Unless Rushdie took more care than most of us to separate his personal computing from his writing, his life is now an open book.

How you feel about that idea probably reflects how you feel about Rushdie as a writer. It takes either incredible guts or astonishing hubris to allow history to look over your shoulder that way. Did he cut a big deal with Emory, or is he really that idealistic about opening his creative process to history? (Or did he, perhaps, not realize how much his laptops were recording?)

For the record, then: I write crime fiction, so I need to know sordid things. And those Google searches last year? I was teaching Nabokov’s Lolita. Really. (Don’t try it. Trust me.) Oh, and did I mention I was experimenting for a time with epistolary style in the age of email? Maybe I got a little carried away“

But to put it all in perspective, the Chronicle story goes on to tell us that UT-Austin has acquired Norman Mailer’s laptop. Let me repeat that, just for clarity: they’ve got Norman Mailer’s laptop. Just take a moment to imagine. He also apparently gave them a Zip drive. That, I believe, is the better way to go. Writers, copy your word processing files ??? notes, drafts, revisions ??? onto a Zip drive and send it to the archives. Then take your laptop out into the backyard and pound on it with a hammer until the pieces are so small that even a Harvard archivist won’t be able to put it back together. We like our writers human, but not that human. History doesn’t need to remember everything. A nice dose of ZIP, and all that excruciating humanity will vanish like a painful memory.

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