Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The pendulum swings back...

I've enjoyed Umberto Eco's books for many years, but I started with Foucault's Pendulum rather than The Name of the Rose, which seems to be first book that most people read. As a result, I've never had as much affection for The Name of the Rose as many others, and I've never forgotten just how exciting it was to read Foucault's Pendulum. I hadn't forgotten the excitement, but I realised recently that I had, in fact, forgotten most of what happens in the book. My memories of it are at best an impression rather than details of the thing itself; a feeling rather than a memory. It's not so long since I read his Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and while I've found Eco disappointing from time to time, Queen Loana reminded me of the depth and humour that attracted me to his work in the first place.

I'm rereading Foucault's Pendulum; here's just one passage which captures so much of why I love Eco when writing at his best: rather than

There, indiscreet reader: you will never know it, but that half-line hanging in space was actually the beginning of a long sentence that I wrote but the wished I hadn't, wished I hadn't even thought let alone written it, wished that it had never happened. So I pressed a key, and a milky film spread over the fatal and inopportune line, and I pressed DELETE and, whoosh, all gone.
But that's not all. The problem with suicide is that sometimes you jump out the window and then change your ming between the eighth floor and the seventh. "Oh if only I could go back!" Sorry, you can't, too bad. Splat. Abu, on the other hand, is merciful, he grants you the right to change your mind: you can recover your deleted text by pressing RETRIEVE. What a relief! Once I know that I can remember whenever I like, I forget.
Abu, if you haven't already guessed, is the modern word processor, the tool that we all use from day to day, and that has probably effected the process of writing more than we might guess. I'm sure the internet has increased the number of words written globally per second by some figure which has already been estimated (lets call it a squillion words per second), but how many words and thoughts have been lost by the new ability to delete? A colleague was writing recently about digital literary studies, and I asked them whether features of word processing like progress tracking will prove to be the literary critic's tools of the future. If T.S. Eliot were writing today, we would perhaps be able to see more clearly Pound's editorial input, as each edited draft is recorded by Word.

I worry that my own writing would be more succesful were there no DELETE key. It is a commonplace to suggest that the arrival of the written word reduced man's oral memory; Eco seems to suggest that the word processor is another step towards record and another step away from memory.

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