Bookwise: When a virtual manuscript is lost in a computer crash, it is more than just virtually lost

You’ve heard this story a hundred times. My hard drive crashed, and with it I’ve lost a half-written book. A few years ago I lost a half-written book because I saved it on my C drive. This time I saved it on my D drive and bits of it in my email account, but apparently that is no help at all. My computer is manufactured by a faceless corporation (it would be impolite to name it here, but it rhymes with Hell), which will only replace the drive, not recover my maybe-masterpiece.

But writers are always losing their manuscripts. If I had lived a century ago, I would have lost my words in the post, or behind my desk in a rented room, or in a fire. The most famous such loser was probably the 19th century philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle, who sent the first volume of his manuscript of The French Revolution to John Stuart Mill for approval. Mill’s maid used it for kindling. If you haven’t tried to burn a huge stack of paper, trust me, it’s not an easy job, especially in a damp climate. I’ve always suspected Mill either was insanely jealous of Carlyle’s achievement or took a more energetic approach to critical review than we do nowadays. In any case, Carlyle had no backup on an external drive. So he wrote it all over again.

It’s funny when it happens to someone else, isn’t it? Pity Miss Prism. In the scene of dramatic revelations in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance Of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell confronts Prism with a decades-old dereliction of duty. Prism tremulously confesses that when she worked as a nanny in her youth, she set out one morning to take the baby for a walk and to deposit a handbag containing her manuscript in a railway station cloakroom. In a fit of absent-mindedness, she put the manuscript in the pram and the baby in the handbag. The railway authorities never got the baby back to his parents, so you see the manuscript stood no chance at all of returning to its sad author. Still, the people who found it read it. Lady Bracknell describes it as “a three-volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality”.

At least those paper manuscripts had a chance of being found again. We have no idea what happens to a soft copy lost in a defective hard drive. Do aged writers leave their dead drives with their important papers, with instructions to kin? No, they take them to the raddiwala along with empty bottles and burnt-out tube lights. In some recycling unit of the future, can a worker pick them up and recognise the beginnings of a literary endeavour? Of course not. Whether that hard drive belonged to a video game addict or Ben Okri, it will end up as recycled components in someone’s hand-held device of the next decade, or in a landfill. There in that landfill lie the hundreds of stories you’ll never hear.

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