The most frequent caution I received when writing my Going Paperless posts went as follows: “What if Evernote goes away? What then?” The more general concern might be expressed as “What if you no longer have access to all that stuff you put into the cloud?” It was never something I lost sleep over, but I understood where the concern came from. There is a tangibility to paper, to holding something, or filing it in drawer that provides reassurance.
But paper can be lost. It can be consumed by fire. Or it can just vanish the shuffle of day-to-day life. That’s what happened to a collection of letters I had years ago.
It was, in my mind anyway, a remarkable collection. I had letters from Piers Anthony, Susan Ellison (Harlan Ellison’s wife), Janet Asimov, Barry N. Malzberg, Senator John Glenn, George W. Bush, and several others. These weren’t letters that I picked up on eBay. I wrote to each of these people, and they took the time to write back.
Some of these letters were particularly special. I wish I still had the letter from Barry Malzberg. I wrote to him sometime in the late 1990s, or perhaps 2000. He wrote back a charming letter. Years later, I met Barry in person, and he became a mentor of mine in the writing field.
I wrote to Janet Asimov years after Isaac Asimov’s death, telling her how much his books meant to me. She replied kindly. I then wrote her again suggestion that final F&SF science essay collection was in order, one with all of his remaining uncollected essays. To my surprise, she wrote me again.
I wrote to Senator John Glenn after he flew on the space shuttle Discovery. I wrote to Piers Anthony several times in college. I wrote to George W. Bush after 9/11.
I had all of these letters slipped into sheet protectors which were securely locked into a binder. The binder had a prominent place on my bookshelves. And then, one day, it was gone. I moved from Los Angeles to Maryland in the summer of 2002, and I suspect that during the chaos of the move, the binder got misplaced, and I never saw it again.
Having those letters scanned into Evernote would not have restored their physicality, but it would allow me to read through them every now and then. That would be nice. Now, I can only imagine what they said. With the exception of a few brief passages here and there, the memory of what those lost letters said is gone.
Countless letters of historical value have been preserved over the centuries. Presidents’ entire correspondence is collected and cataloged. History has preserved many letters for a period of time far longer than the Internet has existed. And yet, when I think about how much information there is on the Internet today—impossible to conceive in anything but abstract terms—what comes to mind are those lost letters of mine.
In the history of writing, how many letters have been lost to time? Most of them probably wouldn’t contribute much. But there is almost certain to be gems of greatest importance scattered among them, just as lost as my letters from Barry Malzberg, Janet Asimov, and John Glenn.