I've recently found myself drawn to visiting the homes or haunts of famous writers and artists. I like being in the presence of manuscripts and personal letters that once belonged to literary geniuses; they make me feel humble. Even their furniture has been known to have a dramatic effect on me; Dickens' chairs have managed to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up on more than one occasion. Their precious words scribbled on ageing paper seem, having been touched by genius, to have an almost magical property of their own (especially for romantic so-and-sos like me). Such documents are, more importantly of course, immensely important as primary sources.
The examination of original manuscripts allows us to trace the development of a writer's writing style, his planning and correcting processes, and even changes in his use of paper or ink. Personal letters and photographs can veritfy or disprove claims that specific events took place, or that an individual thought or acted a certain way. And this doesn't just apply to literary or artistic geniuses, or politicians, famous composers, and so on. The personal documents left behind by ordinary men and women enable us to piece together a picture of how our ancestors thought and behaved when going about their everyday lives. In short, these documents are vital to any study of the past. They also enable us to connect with the people who produced them on a very personal level (hence the goosebumps I got when in the presence of Shelley's letter to Edward Trelawny, shown below).
Above: A letter from Shelley to Edward Trelawny, dated 18th June 1822, in which he asks Trelawny to procure him a small amount of prussic acid. 'I need not tell you I have no intention of suicide at present,' he writes, 'but I confess it would be a comfort to me to hold in my possession that golden key to the chamber of perpetual rest.'. Collection of the Keats-Shelley House, Rome.
But despite our great appreciation for the paper trail left behind by those who are long dead, most of us are doing nothing to create one of our own. We don’t write letters by hand, we send emails; we're so accustomed to immediate gratification these days that being forced to wait up to 48 hours for the post to arrive might cause irreparable mental damage. We take digital photographs everywhere we go, but we never get around to having them printed. And how many of us have switched from using a paper desk diary to recording our engagements in some sort of planner on our laptop, iPad or iPhone?
As I imagine most writers do these days, I use a computer to produce a typescript; until recently, I was so attached to my MacBook that it was sometimes mistaken for being an actual part of my anatomy. What if I turn out to be something of a writerly genius? Nobody will be able to study my manuscripts to track my artistic development. I don't draw a line through sections of written words on paper and then replace them with more suitable ones in pen and ink; I hit the delete key. My processes will be lost to time (what do you mean, that's no great loss?... flaming cheek). When future generations visit exhibitions devoted to creative geniuses of the twenty-first century, will they gasp in awe at the sight of blocks of text displayed on successive models of the iPad?
My mentor, Jack Hillier, and I exchanged letters for nine years. When he passed away, his widow, Mary, returned my letters to me so that I would have both sides of the correspondence. Then we wrote to each other until her passing. I treasure those letters, notes and cards (some of which were handmade). These days, I would probably have a folder full of emails. It just isn't the same.
How many people use a pen for anything other than writing a shopping list or signing a form? In fact, many of us now type our shopping lists and store them on our mobile 'phones, so that really only leaves signing our names every blue moon (this being even less frequent now that cheques are becoming extinct). We're so used to typing on a computer keyboard that prior to my exam last year (for the history degree I'm working towards) students were advised to practise using a pen and paper for several weeks, in case they entered the examination and found themselves unable to.
I have nothing against modern technology; I'm using it now after all. If the news reports are to believed (and I do admit that they rarely are), we are all writing books these days, so we appear to be more productive that ever. But the sad truth of the matter is that, despite the effort we put into recording our every thought on Facebook, on Twitter, in ebooks and on blogs, we are producing nothing that will enable future generations to connect with us in the way that we are able to connect with those who lived before us. We'll leave very few handwritten letters or diaries, no locks of hair, no half-written poems on scraps of paper. We are producing very little of a personal nature that will actually last.