Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Me, my Kaypro, and James Joyce

In 1978 I bought my first personal computer.  It was a Kaypro, and with the attendant daisy-wheel printer, it cost me close to $3,000, a fortune in those days. It ran on floppy discs, and since the machine pre-dated DOS, the operating system was something called CPM, which I think stood for Control Program Manager.  Booting up the Kaypro was like starting a Stanley Steamer automobile.  Wait until the machine warms up (really!). Insert the CPM disk into one of the two drives. The PC whirrs and gasps for a minute or two. A prompt appears in the tiny green seven-inch screen. Insert Wordstar word processing program disc (no spell check, grammar check, accents, thesaurus, etc.) and wait for that to boot. Write.  Manually save often as the entire system is likely to crash. When finished writing, save to a third floppy disc and hope for the best.

Printing was another ordeal. The daisy wheel demanded paper with perforations on both sides, and if these did not perfectly match the printer gears, disaster was sure to follow. If all went well, the printer would clatter loudly enough that the neighbors complained; the printout would fall untidily to the floor. It was important to stop the process once in a while and re-align the perforation and gears, otherwise the printing would get skewed, the daisy wheel would get stuck and eventually punch a hole through the paper.

All in all, the Kaypro was a primitive piece of equipment. It weighed 30 pounds and in spite of this was deemed portable; it was about as large as a Singer sewing machine, and often was given its own seat on airlines. It was hailed as the latest thing in microprocessor technology, and was slow, cumbersome, and prone to error. I loved it. It replaced the ancient manual typewriter on which I’d been working for years and enabled me for the first time to do multiple drafts of a document without retyping and dabs of Wite Out.

At work, we were just getting word processing through monstrous machines made by Phillips. The Mycom computers came with attached keyboards and some basic WP commands on a program called Mass 11. Search-and-replace was a wonderful innovation for all the office wits who would substitute the word ‘kumquat’ for the name of their bosses when typing memos. Information was kept on very large floppy discs that would magically erase themselves if brought too close to a magnet or an automatic door.  In one case, when a secretary transported a divisions’ entire workload on a rolling cart and took an elevator from one floor to another, every single morsel of information on the discs was somehow blasted away by the elevator’s magnetic safety mechanism.  Those were fun times.

It struck me yesterday, as I toiled on my seven-year-old HP deskstop unit, that one of the inadvertent victims of the word processing computer is the manuscript. Now that everything is done on-screen, the hand-edited, scribbled upon and smudged original manuscript is a thing of the past.  And that’s a shame.

Few writers still write by hand. The computer has opened the doors to both talented and talentless individuals who can--or cannot write--and do so anyway. Some may keep actual paper copies of the finished products of their toil, but none, I think, keep copies of every change and edit.  Chances are we will never again see how the work of a new and noteworthy author progresses from rough draft to finished product. As we get increasingly digitized, we’re losing the path that in earlier days showed us how a work evolved, how characters grew, situations changed and plots developed. That’s really a great loss for the students of future literature.  

James Joyce, possibly the greatest English-language novelist, wrote and scribbled in the margins of the original manuscript of his masterpiece Ulysses. A couple of years ago, a special edition of Ulysses was published with all the marginalia included. The draft of the original book, along with a number of others master works by celebrated authors, is on display at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library.  

Draft works edited by their creators date back hundreds of years and are to be found in most important museums. There are even a couple of websites selling original manuscripts, and the prices have been rising steadily. The works need not be from celebrated long-dead authors. A collection of Oriana Fallaci’s notes, manuscripts, and various documents, was sold three years ago for $29,000.

Soon, original manuscripts from our era will not be available at any price. That’s a serious and irremediable loss.

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