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writing our names on the moon
how to be immortal in six easy steps
by brian anderson
3.12.03
writing


The more I learn about him, the more I realize that Geoffrey Chaucer was a big geek.

He wrote an astrolabe treatise, the fourteenth century equivalent of a programming manual. He recorded his works in books when papermaking was limited to only a few places in southern Europe. Few people would be able to read his poems; most books were instructional and reserved for universities. The only private persons collecting and reading books were the technology-and-knowledge-happy haves -- the have-nots were trying to make the rent. Chaucer was a nerd writer writing to nerds.

Sound familiar?

Talk about electronic media all you want, but you need more than that to become famous. You need to hit the right channels (be it Internet or mimeographed zine) in the right way: for every Geoffrey Chaucer, there's a Robert Henryson. The way to make an impact over time is to learn from the masters: Homer, Chaucer, Jules Verne. Six thousand years from now, when your brand-new iMac is so much dust, few of us will be remembered. Here's how to make your work part of the canon.

First of all, it has to be durable.

There are two ways to make your work durable: you can either keep it in a
safe location, or you can make the medium itself robust enough to last.

To find a safe location, try throwing your manuscript away. Archaeologists are always studying the garbage-heaps of history, and right now, our landfills are one of the most lasting marks of our culture. Deep in a dump crammed densely with junk, with little to no air and few microbes to break down the material, newspapers retain their legibility for years. Throw enough manuscripts in enough dumps, and something will survive and be found.

Barring that, make certain that there's a lasting copy of your work somewhere. Electronic memory is chiefly circuit-based, and that's going to be disrupted before the Second Golden Age is upon us. CD is better, as its biodegradability is pretty low. Paper is biodegradable, but has its own set of advantages: it's dense, fairly easy to decipher, and usually collected with similar works.

Never assume that Internet will be there forever: ask the folks at http://www.archive.org how hard it is to keep records of web pages. A hardcopy in any medium always trumps an electronic version.

Second, it has to be findable.

Why is Beowulf considered the greatest epic poem in old English? Well, because it's the only one we have extant; other poems may have been better, but we only have fragments now, as opposed to a few different copies of Beowulf. So to make your work findable, make certain that it's widely disseminated. Working through a publishing house is a valid option. So is selling directly to the consumer (as Mark Twain did with Huckleberry Finn). So is contributing to well-known anthologies and periodicals (as Jules Verne and Charles Dickens did.)

If a solar flare destroys our civilization tomorrow, which do you suppose has a better chance of having copies surviving intact: Proust's A la
recherche du temps perdu
or John Grisham's The Firm? (You already know the answer to that one; odds are that at least one airport bookstore will survive.) Why are there so many copies of Grisham? Because he's accessible: people are conditioned to respond to well-written books in genres they recognize. In fact, as long as you're in genre (crime fiction, fantasy, romance, Medieval allegory, etc.), you're halfway there. It just needs to be above average in quality to be well known ... and well collected. Homer wasn't the only Ionian epic writer, but with some well-considered choices, he became the standard of the genre.

Third, it has to be recognizable.

One-third of deciphering a message is realizing that it is a message. Confronted with some hieroglyphics, it becomes obvious that it is some sort of writing. Confronted with Edison's wax cylinder, deciphering the content takes more time. CDs are fine, but remember that in future ages the CD encoding and reading process has to be recovered. Leave a Rosetta Stone: if you have a CD copy, bundle it with a hardcopy whenever storing. Or, at the very least, make sure there are at least two types of storage extent, and make sure both are labeled with the same name, to make putting two and two together easy.

Fourth, it has to be readable.

Once our hypothetical future Howard Carter has opened King Tut's tome, and once the fact that there are hieroglyphics comes to light, he needs to be able to decipher said symbols. If possible, translate into the best known languages: Mandarin, English, and Arabic. These are the three tongues currently leaving the best traces. English in particular is a good choice, as "how to speak English" books can be found from Tokyo to Patagonia: those will probably survive a cataclysm. Maybe you should consider writing one.

If you're recording electronically, keep the following in mind: text files are universal. HTML files, like web pages, are a bit more difficult to decipher if the discoverer is reading them character by character. As with any electronic medium, keep in mind that the simpler it is, the better: in the future, the machines may not exist to read the source. Even today, we have to carefully reconstruct the player pianos that will play the piano rolls George Gershwin recorded only seventy-five years ago. Imagine reconstructing PDF from the ground up.

Fifth, it has to be comprehensible.

In order to be a household name, one has to matter to the household. Old Will Shakespeare is so well known that his name gets attributed to all sorts of things he didn't write (ask an anti-Stratfordian). This is because we see pithy statements - even Shakespeare's - as applicable to our present lives. So make it general. It's admirable to use the Iran-Iraq War as an example of man's inhumanity to man, but it will do no good to record the details of that war for the sake of the details. You may be trying to alert your contemporaries to issues they may not know, and that's a fine goal, but it won't make you immortal. Our future Homo superior will find it about as interesting as we find the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

If you must be topical, make the topic something that will be known for centuries: large-scale wars, natural disasters, bloody revolutions, etc.

And finally, it has to be valuable.

Remember when we said that the work has to be at least above average to be disseminated? Well, it had better have something more than that to be truly timeless. It has to speak to an inner world, either emotional or intellectual. Just hanging around for years is not enough: we don't read Roman cookbooks today.

It takes work, and it takes practice. It usually takes revision. And most of all, it takes time. Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe were forgotten by the time they died, but their stories have since become classics. So be patient! After all, if an obscure government servant like Geoffrey Chaucer can become immortal after his death, why not you?


ABOUT BRIAN ANDERSON

"Brian, clearly you're meant to be wearing something with a cowl...or at the very least, elbow patches and/or tweed."

more about brian anderson




COMMENTS

erik myers
3.6.03 @ 9:37a

A hardcopy in any medium always trumps an electronic version.

Ah... irony.

sarah ficke
3.6.03 @ 9:40a

Have you ever read Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay? It has some interesting ideas about how our current stuff could be interpreted in the future.

eloise young
3.12.03 @ 3:25a

I've just had 95 copies of a large binder of documents made. I think that this meets the first criterion... stumped after that, though. :-(

tracey kelley
3.12.03 @ 10:35a

There were Roman cookbooks? Seriously? Oh wow, those would be cool to see.

It is indeed hysterical that Gates wanted us to be a "paperless society" ... and yet paper is the only thing that is guaranteed to survive the ages.


adam kraemer
3.12.03 @ 10:50a

There were Roman cookbooks? Seriously? Oh wow, those would be cool to see.

"Step one, get Prometheus to give you fire."

sarah ficke
3.12.03 @ 11:11a

When microfilm was invented people were all gung-ho to convert archives of newspapers and like things into microfilm because it takes up less storage space. Now they are finding that microfilm degrades faster than properly treated paper.

sarah ficke
3.12.03 @ 12:36p

Sorry, Brian, didn't mean to kill discussion.

So, does anyone here ever think about making their words immortal? Do you write stories or letters or post-cards thinking "what would someone think about me and our society if they found this years from now"?

erik myers
3.12.03 @ 12:42p

Doesn't everybody? I write because I want power.

I will rule the world, and thousands of years from now people will remember me because of an article that I wrote about urinals.

Seriously, though -- do you think that, historically, anybody has been concious of the fact that their work might last for thousands of years? How would anybody know that their's might be considered a work of art?

heather millen
3.12.03 @ 12:43p

I've thought about "time capsules" and how cool that would be to uncover. Even so cheesy as to have constructed one or two in my youth, I'm sure.

But when I'm writing, I'm already struggling enough with making it embraced by my contemporaries, let alone people hundreds of years from now.

heather millen
3.12.03 @ 12:45p

Erik, that was a SHAMELESS plug. I could've easily said how I will be remembered for flippant Vegas weddings, but I didn't. Find it yourself.

And that brings us back to the second criteria in Brian's article.

sarah ficke
3.12.03 @ 12:53p

Yeah. Erik, you'd better print out that urinal article on acid-free paper and put it in a climate controlled space with no mouse holes.

The reason I asked my question is that I once had to do a report on Abigail Adams in 10th grade and I remember reading all of these excerpts from her letters, which were all of great cultural or political interest. And sometimes while I'm writing a letter I think "what would this say to someone who found it?"

Of course, there are always the fun letters about fashions and fripperies you find in social histories written by flippant young girls, so I guess immortality can come in many ways.

erik myers
3.12.03 @ 12:55p

Erik, that was a SHAMELESS plug.

Yeah, but did you click on it? That IS the second criteria in the article, here.

So, I wonder what our chief has to say about this, in regards to Intrepid Publishing.

Imagine reconstructing PDF from the ground up.

Our we setting ourselves up for short lives?

joe procopio
3.12.03 @ 1:46p

Did I bury this column and have Brian killed?

eloise young
3.12.03 @ 2:15p

I hope not.

adam kraemer
3.12.03 @ 2:39p

Yeah, that seems like the sort of thing only you could know.

sarah ficke
3.12.03 @ 2:56p

Well, the column isn't buried because it's right here. But Brian may be dead and replaced by an evil clone. That is something that only Joe knows.

robert melos
3.12.03 @ 10:26p

If he's a clone, he would only be evil if Brian (the original) were evil.

I write to entertain, either myself or others, so I do believe I must consider the future reader in some obscure location in my mind. I have thought, what would a future generation think of my works? I've also considered alien races coming to Earth, reading my stuff and deciding on destroying the planet to keep humanity from spreading throughout the galaxy.



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