The Book Burning Chamber Maid

Thomas Carlyle, 1785-1891

One chilly morning in March of 1835, a chambermaid used a stack of scrap paper to kindle a nice cozy fire. Unfortunately, that stack of scrap paper was Thomas Carlyle’s handwritten first volume of THE FRENCH REVOLUTION that he had lent to John Stuart Mill for review. (It’s current paperback edition contains 380 small-print pages crammed with Carlyle’s feverish prose, in case you were wondering how many pages of work went up in flames that day).

How could Mill explain to Carlyle that months of his life now lay in a heap of ashes in his grate? He did what seemed right in that courageous century (lacking the convenience and cowardice of instant text messaging). He visited Carlyle in person, bringing the burned scraps with him.

Carlyle met the situation with heroic equanimity, especially considering that he and his wife were on the brink of financial ruin. He simply asked Mill to buy him some paper, so that he could begin again.  After he finished Volumes II and III, he set himself to the task of rewriting Volume I from scratch. Capturing both the feeling and the events of times, THE FRENCH REVOLUTION served as Charles Dicken’s primary source for his famous TALE OF TWO CITIES. We’re all very glad that Carlyle didn’t just pull the covers over his head and give into writerly despair.

Accidental manuscript burnings are less common these days. Now, instead of using paper and ink, we inscribe our grandest ideas and profoundest thoughts in binary bits that can reach around the world, while floating in magnetic disks upon our desks.

It’s a digital fourth dimension where society and commerce take place. It’s impressive. Magical. Like adding a fourth leg to a rocking three-legged stool, we hope that this new dimension will add stability to our lives and protect our best work from shivering chambermaids.

We only need remember the new moral code: Always. Back. Up. Because when digital  failure happens, the timing is always impeccably grim and the results are ugly. Case in point: my husband spent three days of a holiday weekend preparing an important presentation, only to have his hard drive fail Tuesday morning.

It’s like the spirit of some ancient gremlin dwells inside our machines, waiting for that least convenient time to kick a bit of gravel and dust into the works. Of course it’s not always the gremlins. Once I spilled a cup of tea into my laptop. And a friend of mine had his computer stolen out from between his feet, while he napped at the airport. (A primitive kind of cybercrime, from an outdated dimension).

“The Cloud” promises improved durability. Duplicate, triplicate, quadruplicate files of my mediocre story drafts are multiplied across the digital universe. It makes one’s heart swell. But how will this cloud weather the future, if technology should fails us and we find civilization wobbling again upon three legs?

The ancients probably had it right. If you want your history to survive for posterity, chisel it in stone.