Leading article: Things of beauty?

Wednesday 20 April 2011 00:00

There's always been a romance about literary estates. One only has to think of Franz Kafka's life's work (which he asked a friend to destroy), John Keats's profound letters to his brother, Mark Twain's memoirs (which were not to be published until a century after his death). The very words evoke images of yellowing papers containing pearls of genius, scraps of unfinished masterpieces. But will the romance of the literary estate survive the digital revolution? We ask because the British Library has acquired the archive of the poet Wendy Cope and this includes 40,000 of her emails.

There's something businesslike about the medium of email. Abbreviations and erratic punctuation are common. We tend not to compose them with the same care that we would compose a letter on paper. Nor do we feel as comfortable committing profound feelings to cyberspace. So will future historians come to see emails as a chore, rather than a treasure trove? Will they skip through thousands of mundane and badly spelled missives from authors? Or are great writers different from the rest of us? Do they compose emails of beauty and literary merit? It will be interesting to find out. And, just in case, perhaps we should requisition their text messages for posterity too.

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