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Accidental Autobiography

Monday, February 19, 2001

Should you keep five year-old email messages? I’m currently tidying up the contents of various hard drives and floppy disks (remember them?) to prepare for the arrival of a new machine. But how much to throw out is proving a difficult question.

You keep photographs to remind of the things you’ve done, and the people you were with. To remind you never to grow your hair like that again, or for many other reasons. And it feels right to keep them. 

Maybe emails are in the same category, and by this I don’t mean every purely administrative work-related mail, or the newsletters you subscribed to, but the notes to your friends, the jokes, the abuse. 

Photographs and emails are part of your personal history. Every day you’re making memories, and this stuff marks the paths you’ve been down. Maybe burning old mail onto a CD is the equivalent of sticking stuff up in the attic. You don’t need it around every day, but you’re not going to throw it out either. 

And it’s the ephemeral nature of emails that makes them such good markers. It’s a truism in historical study that you get much better information when your primary source isn’t trying to tell you what happened than if you’re reading a considered history from the period. Documents that were written not with a view to posterity ironically live a longer life. 

So the stuff you dashed off to your mate when you were bored in the office one day catches you like a candid photograph. You might acknowledge at the time that this mail could be preserved, but you don’t write it like that. And unlike real letters, you get to keep the mail you send too. It’s an unmediated account of your preoccupations, your worries, your day to day life. An accidental autobiography. 

Some people might argue that you shouldn’t keep carrying this baggage around with you, that you are yourself only in the present, and all that stuff happened to someone else.  It’s certainly true that you can dwell too much on your former self. But if you maintain the right attitude to this personal detritus – a good-natured distance seems about right – then having it around is surely a good idea. 

But why, exactly? You keep all your photos, but you don’t look at them very often. And even when you do, it’s hard to explain what’s going on. 

Wordsworth argued that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Scrolling through ASCII email archives is also recalling your old emotions and feelings at one remove. We can’t say why poetry matters but we do it anyway, and maybe the same is true of keeping and looking through our personal archives. 

So I won’t worry about all this crap I’m pouring on to CD, because in some way it’s poetry. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, February 2001)