marley was dead: to begin with.

Here’s a look at Charles Dickens’ original manuscript for A Christmas Carol, which is decidedly the coolest thing I’ve seen all week.  You can leaf around in it, and see all the sections that Dickens crossed out and edited.

That’s an undeniable advantage of the longhand method: you can see the evolution of the page, what you changed, and how you changed it.  Maybe you go back to it and find that the original word was the right one after all, and it’ll still be there.  With the computer, there’s no “original draft”.  It’s like dumping some narrative clay on a table and forming it into a shape—deleting, reshaping, improving—and all the stuff you deleted and changed just disappears.

Another thing I find comforting about longhand manuscripts: permanence.  We can see Charles Dickens’ original work, a hundred and sixty-six years ago.  There’s no need to find a device that will read the medium, and no need to track down a file converter for some archaic word processing program.  That Dickens manuscript, provided it is kept dry, will be readable in another hundred and sixty-six years.  (In contrast, let me hand you a box of word processing files from the 1980s, written on 5.25” floppies with OmniWriter on a Commodore 64, and ask you to find a way to read those.) Using waterproof ink and acid-free paper, a modern handwritten work will last for hundreds of years without significant deterioration.

One of the many little things that made me appreciate handwriting my stuff is the recipe book I’ve mentioned before.  It’s a little composition-sized book with hard black covers, and it’s filled with recipes in Robin’s grandmother’s handwriting…all written down before she left Germany for the United States in the early 1920s.  Call it a grand conceit, but I like the idea of my kids and grandkids being able to hold and read something I wrote before they were born—something that traveled around with me for a while, and that was filled by my own hand line by line, page by page. 

Of course, that assumes they’ll be in a position to appreciate such things, and not just chuck those old notebooks out with the rest of the old geezer’s stuff when he kicks the bucket…

(Via Matt G.)


15 thoughts on “marley was dead: to begin with.

  1. mike says:

    That is an incredible document! You can imagine Dicken’s, pen in inkstained hand, agonizing over the proper word to match the vision in his head. It also makes me appreciate my own handwriting. The only way mine could be described as elegant is next to Dicken’s own.

  2. Jeff says:

    “With the computer, there’s no ‘original draft’. ”

    This doesn’t have to be true. I write software for a living, and we use revision control on all of our source code. I can see each version that was checked in, along with the comments of the person who checked it in and a date/time stamp. Most revision control software is designed to work with any text file, so there’s no reason you couldn’t use it for prose.

    It’s a great collaboration tool as well. I used it in college on a ~100 page project report written by four people, and it was a lifesaver.

  3. Rob K says:

    ‘With the computer, there’s no “original draft”.’

    Au contraire: (see also cvs, git, mercurial, perforce and countless others). There’s no original draft only if you don’t keep one.

  4. Permanence is one of the ever-fewer concrete advantages physical books still have over ebooks (and most of the rest are only serious advantages to us crotchety libertarians). Sure, we’ll _probably_ keep some backward-compatible means of reading obsolete file types, but operate on software that’s essentially universal to their users. As long as you speak the language the book is written in, it doesn’t matter what kind of press was used to print it.

  5. Homer says:

    Marko – RE: handwriting and fountain pens. You may have answered this before and I missed it; if so, my apologies for not paying attention.

    I comprehend the value you place in something like a Parker 51, and why, but if one wanted a reasonable quality fountain pen, preferably one for which multiple nibs and bladder filling from a bottle were options, and which did not carry an exorbitant price (say, under $100), what would you recommend? I’ve been using a Mont Blanc received as a gift some years back (and I don’t dare get rid of it, but a “spare” could arrive unquestioned), and I think it’s time to move to something better.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      If you want a bottle-drinking pen that gives you the option of interchangeable nibs, I’d strongly suggest one of the entry-level Pelikan piston fillers. The M200 is only about $80, and the metal-barreled M215 around $90-100. (I have a translucent “demonstrator” M205 I love dearly.)

      Every Pelikan I’ve ever tried has been a superb writer, and a well-crafted pen. The nibs on the Pels screw out easily, so you can order extra nibs in various sizes to experiment.

      The only drawback to the Pelikan piston fillers is the fact that they can’t use cartridges, but their ink capacity is more than twice that of a cartridge pen, so writing the pen dry between stops at your desk is really not an issue. I use an extra-fine nib, and it takes me most of a week to use up all the ink in the barrel.

      Check this guy out for good prices and variety on Pelikans (no affiliation or kickbacks, just a happy customer):

      • Nomen Nescio says:

        i’d dearly like a pelikan 200, i think, because i’ve heard nothing but good about them. but… $80 for a pen is way out of my range. $30-50 for one of the cheapo lamys or bottom-end watermans is more like it, and even that i would call one hella expensive pen.

        not that i might not get one. i carry a zippo lighter that cost enough to keep me in disposable bics for life, after all. but the disposable bic ballpoints i could buy for the equivalent of most any fountain pen… i doubt i’ll write that much by hand if i live to see a century.

        (yes, i’ve tried the disposable fountain pens. not bad, although “disposable” kindof negates the idea of “fountain pen” in my mind. no retailer near me carries them any longer, though, and if i’m gonna have to order online anyway i might as well get the real thing.)

        so, any opinions on the really cheap fountain pen offerings? the pelikan “future”, the lamy “safari”, or something in that price range?

        • Marko Kloos says:

          The Safari is a solid choice.

          If you’re really on a budget, I’d recommend the Pilot 78G. It’s $10-15 from most online sources, comes with a squeeze-bladder converter so you can use bottled ink, and takes Pilot cartridges as well.

          The 78G is a very smooth writer, like most Japanese pens, and a bit more conservatively styled than the Safari. It’s just about the best cheap and decent starter pen I can think of.

          There’s also the Reform 1745, which is a Pelikan-style piston filler from a now defunct German company. They show up on eBay on occasion as NOS (new/old stock). I have one that I bought for $12 shipped, and it’s a great writer, with a very smooth and responsive nib. (It’s also the cheapest German piston filler you can buy.)

        • Nomen Nescio says:

          thanks for the response! i’ll keep my eyes open for those, and might join the fountain pen network just in case i spot something that looks like a bargain on there.

    • jbrock says:

      For whatever it’s worth, I can second the Pelikan M200 series enthusiastically. Nobody, but nobody, beats these in terms of sheer bang for the buck.

      (I know the Lamy 2000 is really popular, but after having one that only lasted about 2 weeks, I’m kinda leery of them.)

  6. Kristopher says:

    You might also want to investigate Sam Clemens ( Mark Twain ) and his journals. I found a complete copy of them in the PSU library.

    They had been published intact … reading his journal while traveling, while reading Innocents Abroad ( his book on the experience ) was something else.

  7. LittleRed1 says:

    Historians would be up some very unpleasant creeks if we didn’t have hand-written diaries, ledger books and other documents to look at. I work with a collection of records and diaries that were rescued from a fire back in the early 20th century, and the archivist jokes that we can tell the authenticity of documents from this source by whether or not they smell like bar-b-que.

    The spelling and handwritings also say a lot about the men who kept these records. Some were probably the first literate generation in their families, some were university-educated Englishmen and one spoke/wrote English as his second language – German or French may have been his first one.

  8. mike says:

    At Marko’s advice, I bought the Pilot 78G and am very happy with it. It has renewed my joy in writing and I look forward to that time in my day. I now find myself desiring more….a slippery slope indeed!

  9. pax says:

    With the computer, there’s no “original draft”

    I write straight through on Word, then click “track changes” before making any revisions (and view “final” rather than “final showing markup” to avoid distraction).

    The result is a beautiful, clean copy as I’m working, and a whole bunch of crossed-out chicken scratches in the margins in case I want to revert.

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