Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Reading the Domesday Book

A few months ago I read Alberto Manguel's excellent The Library at Night, which has a lot to say about both books and libraries as physical objects, but it's this passage (pp 75-6 in my edition) that stuck with me:

'The argument that calls for electronic reproduction on account of the endangered life of paper is a false one... In 1986, the BBC spent two and a half million pounds creating a computer-based, multi-media version of the Domesday Book... Over a million people contributed to the project, which was stored on twelve-inch laser disks that could only be deciphered by a special BBC microcomputer. Sixteen years later, in March 2002, an attempt was made to read the information on one of the few such computers still in existence. The attempt failed... By contrast, the original Domesday Book, almost a thousand years old, written in ink on paper and kept at the Public Record Office in Kew, is in fine condition and still perfectly readable'

It's somewhat obvious (to me) why this is on my mind at the moment; my laptop failed suddenly and without warning a few days ago, taking all my data with it. Fortunately I had almost everything backed up; annoyingly, however, some of this backed-up material, ie two or three chapters of the new novel I'm writing, was backed up only in the sense that I had full handwritten draft copies of it on paper. (I am obsessive enough to not only prefer writing in longhand but to copy out clean copies after doing any computer rewrites. I've never been so glad to be so ridiculous).

Obviously one majorly annoying facet of this debacle is that it was my fault. I should have backed up all those chapters long ago, and wouldn't be having to re-type them now if I had. But it did bring it home to me that electronic text is more vulnerable to human accident, mistake, and sheer chance than physical, written text will ever be. Short of a house fire (and I seem to remember that Eve Garnett saved the badly burnt manuscript of her Further Adventures of the Family From One End Street from a house fire and managed to decipher most of it, so even this isn't foolproof), there isn't much I can do accidentally to my handwritten manuscript that will completely destroy it; even chucking a cup of tea over it will keep it readable. I'd have to deliberately tear it up or eat it, like the mad monk in The Name of the Rose... It links, in my mind, to some comments somebody made recently, possibly even someone famous (apologies for not being able to remember where on earth people have been talking about this) that, even as recently as fifty years ago, technology was understandable and still largely physical; if your TV, radio, car broke down, you could still about understand how all the parts worked and fit it back together, even if it was ultimately irreparable. Nowadays, computers are more like magic; we can't get anywhere towards understanding them on a layman's level, and the data, to ignorant people like me, seems like a ghost in the machine.

None of this is to say that technology is Evil and Bad. You can bet I'll be buying a new laptop (I have an Apple Mac in my sightlines in fact) and one day, I may even get a Kindle, though I admit that day at the moment is a long way off. And I only have to look at some of the bookstacks in Cambridge's University Library (South Wing Floor 6!) to see that storing physical copies of all books ever is not going to be feasible (and the UL doesn't even hold copies of all books ever). However, I suppose I am trying to say something about the importance of books being physical objects, and not just because that makes them more durable. I guess it's about the text existing in the real world, not just in the ghost-in-the-machine world.

Which of course explains why I'm bringing this post to you via the means of charcoal scrawlings on tree bark...

PS I can't work out how to caption things either. The old tome is not my handwritten manuscript but is the Domesday book entry for Chalfont St Giles.