It’s strange to think now, but back in 1989, Salman Rushdie‘s novel ‘The Satanic Verses‘ was published to mixed reviews.  Let’s be honest, it isn’t exactly gripping reading, and would, no doubt, have clogged up the remainder shops, had it not been for Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who issued a fatwa over the book’s content. Rushdie went into hiding and a rather so-so book became the symbol of western liberty.

The fatwa marked a major shift in cultural relations between the West and the MIddle East. But more importantly for literature, the fatwa led Rushdie to writing his novels on a computer.

Rushdie described how working on a computer made his writing “tighter and more concise” as he no longer had to perform the mechanical act of re-typing endlessly. This meant all the time taken up by the mechanical act left him free to think.

But this change also created a new problem that affects museums, archivists and literary historians to this very day.  For “born-digital” materials — those documents or artefacts initially created in an electronic form — are far more complicated and costly to preserve than was ever anticipated.

Why?  Well, this is because all electronically produced writing is ultimately just a series of digits — 0’s and 1’s — which are written onto floppy disks, CDs and hard drives, and surprisingly, all of which degrade far faster than good old-fashioned acid-free paper.

But that’s not the only drawback, for the relentless upgrading of technology means older equipment and software, that could make sense of all these zeros and ones, simply no longer exists.

However, Emory University has been working towards solving this problem of archiving Salman Rushdie’s computer files and have started displaying some of Rushdie’s work.

Even so, as these discs primarily contain corrected and revised versions of work, this raises the question as to whether future archivists and historians will learn anything of value from Rushdie’s, or any other writer’s creative processes?  You know the kind of thing: the development of themes, characters, and drafts, scribbled on old cigarette packs, the backs of envelopes, or even just in good old notebooks – all of which reveal the thought process by which an author creates. Whether we like it or not, corrected copies on an old floppy disc will only give us the answer, and not the question.


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