Back when I was studying English for both my undergrad (English Language and Culture) and my graduate degree (Linguistics, specifically syntax), I often had the pleasure of browsing through a collection of letters and documents that were written between 1422 and 1509. These are the Paston Letters, a wonderful glimpse into life as it was for a fairly well to do middle class family in Norfolk, England. From these letters we can learn much about a very tumultuous period in England’s history. The War of the Roses was in full swing. English was doing the Great Vowel Shift shuffle, and the rising middle classes were completely changing the cultural and societal landscape.
Of particular interest to me were the letters written by the women of the family. Despite the continuing misconception that medieval women were uneducated, most women of good families received some education, and while not all could write, most women could read. In the Paston family, we still have the letters of eight of the women over three generations. They detail the dramas and joys of family life and present us with an almost soap-opera-like description of adultery, secret marriages, unwanted pregnancies, gallivanting husbands, and so on. One wonders if the writers of Days of Our Lives and Bold and the Beautiful didn’t take a peek into this treasure trove for inspiration!
It is a testament to record keeping and family archives that these letters survived at all, and they survive because they are physical objects. Other objects like this are the diaries of Samuel Pepys (life in London during the Great Fire, the Restoration and the Great Plague), and the diaries of Anne Lister (detailing her lesbian relationships and the challenges she encountered being a woman and a landowner). In the case of the latter, these were hidden away for generations, and even when decoded, they were considered too dangerous to share, but not so dangerous that the family destroyed them.
This is the point I am trying to get to. In five hundred years, when future humans look back at our period of history, what will be left to show of what our daily lives are like?
Sure, we will have all the fiction and non-fiction that gets printed, and archives like the Way Back machine and the various web corpora will have records of texts published on the web, but what about our emails, texts, private messages to family and friends? All of that gets encrypted these days, and most of us delete old emails and messages quite regularly.
Not only that, but the sheer amount of digital information that lands in our laps each day means that most of us spend a good bit of time getting rid of more than we keep. Digital information is extremely delete-able, and yet we wholesale opt in to digital methods for their relative ease of use. Our currency is disappearing and being replaced by 1s and 0s. Our images are pixels instead of paper. Artists move from easel to tablets. Writers stare down blank screens instead of blank pages.
And yet, harddrives crash, backups get lost, years and years of memories can be wiped out in an instant. Months and months of work can be erased with the touch of a key.
For my part, I am trying to maintain something of a physical archive of daily life in my little village. I keep a paper diary and sit down to write in it every morning. I try to write handwritten letters to family and close friends a few times a year and keep a copy on file. I keep my old Olympus 33mm analog camera handy for snapping shots of important life events and get them developed (at hideous cost, but posterity is expensive). Not that I think my life is particularly interesting, by the way. But having felt the joy of coming upon commonplace books and old letter bundles at antique markets and book fairs, and having spent pleasant hours reading about these average people from earlier times, I would like to think that one day in the future someone might find my letters and know that the more things change, the more people, by and large, remain the same.
Do you retain something of the analog in your life? Do you ever think about what your descendants will have to look back on your generation? It’s something to ponder.