What You Gonna Do When The Mail Runs Dry?

It’s World Book Day, and in answer to the question World Book Day naturally provokes, I’m reading the diaries of English actor Kenneth Williams. I’m also reading the journals of Betsy Sheridan and Soren Kierkegaard and the letters of William S. Burroughs. I move between them, usually using their proximity to the place I’m sitting as my criterion for selection.

I love reading the private documents and ephemera of public figures. I know that some insist creative work should be read and understood without reference to its creator; but something that excites my intellect or my imagination always provokes an extra curiosity in me. When I read “A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud the fabulousness of it made me want to know more about the person responsible for bringing it into the world. Not that Rimbaud was an easy man to locate.

Which has me wondering, today, how the arrival of the technological age will affect our future study of the arts. My poet friends and I used to send each other letters; I have an archive of handwritten or typed and hand-signed communication from many people who are gone now. Anybody who wanted to build a picture of Dave Church, Joe Speer and Norbert Blei, among others—a picture that is distinct from the surviving published work—can access my archive, and those accumulated by my friends, and the men behind the poetry and the prose live and breathe again.

These days, however, poets and writers send emails and use social media like everybody else. Do they print them for posterity? I used to, but the cost became prohibitive. So my exchanges with other artists are either preserved for however long Facebook survives, or they disappear immediately into the void. I keep a handwritten journal as well as a public blog . . . do others? Or am I just carrying on the furtive behaviour of the socially inadequate teenager I once was?

Educators (as opposed to tutors) will know more about where the study of literature is heading; and I’m sure postmodernists would have something to say about technology and the Self that would be completely brilliant and apropos, although I’m equally sure I wouldn’t understand it. I have never had much of a head for theory. I like to read the lives of my authors and historical personalities the way I read their works, and by putting man or woman and work together, attempt a deeper understanding of both. If anybody wants to do that in 50 years they will have a much harder time than I’ve had, thanks to email and Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg. Will the public interview become our portal to the private from now on? and how much is that going to hide?